The Dangers of Iceland (a warning all Iceland tourists should heed)

Text & photos © Catherine Nichols

ONE OF THE THINGS I LOVE MOST about traveling to another country is I get to see just how much Americans are protected from themselves in the United States.

We have the most ridiculous warning tags on the most obvious things. Recently, for example, I’ve learned that coffee is hot and that I probably shouldn’t fold up a stroller while a baby is still in it. Really? Makes you wonder how our parents raised us into adulthood without these reminders.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

In Costa Rica, by contrast, I swam up to a cascading waterfall in a volcano-heated pool and put my hand under it—and just as quickly removed it. It was very, VERY hot. My hand was flaming red from the brief connection.

Was there a sign I had missed warning of the heat? Nope. The resort had pools heated to different temperatures with placards listing the temperature of a particular pool. No such placard had been placed near the scalding hot waterfall.

Did I learn from this experience? You know I did!

Fashionable? Maybe.
Safe? YES!

Fast forward to my recent trip to Iceland. Iceland is another country where they trust people not to be idiots. Although maybe they ought to rethink their strategy of placing only short rope fences around their most dangerous natural attractions, such as the geysers, the ocean (I’ll explain in a few . . .), and a cliff that leads in two different directions straight down into the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic.

Witnessing three dangerous and nearly deadly events involving tourists being stupid in a less-than-10-day trip is astonishing, especially given the small number of people inhabiting Iceland.

Quiet pool near geyser

The first stupid tourist was at an area of natural geysers. The main geyser goes off pretty consistently but there are surrounding bubbling pools that don’t do much of anything other than look pretty. Steam can be seen rising from these pools, so you can pretty much assume the water is hot. After all, they are heated by geothermal sources from underground.

I was at one of these beautiful upper pools adjacent to the regularly erupting geyser when suddenly an 18-20 year old girl stepped over the 1-foot high rope and put her hand in the water. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. The sign next to the pool stated it was between 80-100 degrees Celsius (176-212 degrees Fahrenheit)!

Geyser going off

There wasn’t a placard for the waterfall in Costa Rica but there was definitely a sign next to the pool.

Without thinking, I shouted, “What are you doing?!” I had assumed she was from a non-English speaking country. She replied in perfect English, “I was just seeing how hot it was.”

Yes, folks, the girl put her hand into boiling water to make sure it was hot.

Steaming hot

I witnessed the second stupid tourist at the Black Beach (Reynisfjara). Our tour guide was adamant that we not go anywhere near the shoreline due to sneaker waves. Even with a very calm ocean surface, the waves can sneak up on an unsuspecting person and pull them into the ocean, never to be seen again.

Stupid Tourist #2 was right at the water with her back to the ocean while her other friend was taking pictures of her, pouty face pictures. There’s a written warning for all to see in the parking lot prior to stepping onto the beach, with a very disturbing photo of someone getting swept away in the sneaker waves. I rushed back to the bus before I could witness anything deadly on the Black Beach.

Warning at Black Beach

Little did I know I wouldn’t be safe from witnessing something incredibly traumatic on my trip to Iceland. It wasn’t going to be on the trip to Reynisfjara, but it would be a few days later.

The Horrible Day I Will Never Forget

Being on a fast-paced tour with a bunch of people you don’t know can be trying, especially as a self-proclaimed introvert.

Although I was touring with two of my daughters, I didn’t know the rest of the large group of people. My girls know I need time alone in order to become normal again. If I don’t get some alone time, even while on vacation, I can become quite unrecognizable.

It was this need to be alone in Iceland that put me on a path to witness something I will never forget.

Incredible color contrast

After going through a cave, the tour group stopped at a coffee shop. The cave had been really cold—the kind of cold you can’t shake. We all got something hot and drank it at our tables. We chatted with one another but with less enthusiasm. The nonstop togetherness was getting to everybody.

As each person finished his or her drink, he/she would head out to a path that looked out from the cliffs toward the Atlantic Ocean. My girls and I were the last to finish and get on the path.

Bárður Snæfellsás Monument

The first stop on the path was a sculpture of Bárður Snæfellsás. This is a very large stone sculpture created by Ragnar Kjartansson. Bárður Snæfellsás is the mythical protector of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

A family of four wanted multiple photos in and around the art installation. Then a few people in my group wanted their own photos. I’m more of a fan of taking photos of the actual object so I had to wait a while for the people to go.

Photographing the imposing stone sculpture, I realized I was alone and behind the group, but I didn’t care. I knew where I needed to end up, and I was told the path led right to the chartered tour bus, so I continued walking toward the cliffs at my own pace.

Rocks and pebbles side by side

A group of tourists were standing on a deck built to take advantage of the incredible views of the rocky cliffs and caves below. After finishing my art photo shoot, I saw the deck and walked down to join them. I took numerous photos from the wooden structure, trying to capture the spirit of the rough and rugged beauty.

When I was done, I walked back to the trail and meandered slowly toward the bus. I didn’t know how far it was, nor did I care. Would I get into trouble from the tour guide for being late? I still didn’t care. I needed the time alone to collect my introverted thoughts.

Incredible vista of Mirador

I stopped and took more pictures of the incredible vista on my iPhone but wasn’t really satisfied with the outcome. The vision before me was far more spectacular than what was showing up on my screen. Out of disgust, and also wanting to get out of the incredible wind and cold, I decided I would take another couple pictures and then head toward the bus.

I followed the path to an area that had an incredible arch that people were walking on. It was maybe 4-5 feet wide so not a lot of room for missteps. One couple was standing on the arch while their tour guide took their photo. I walked down a little way toward the arch but stayed far enough away from the edge and waited my turn to take a picture. I figured even I could take a decent photo of this particular formation.

Highly dramatic cliff sighting

As more people gathered on the arch to wait their turn for their own photos, the tour guide clicked a few more times. I even wondered to myself, “Should I have my daughters get on that arch? It would be such a great photo.”

As I was finishing the thought, a family of three waited their turn. But then the unthinkable happened—the elderly father fell 60 feet from the arch into the frigid Atlantic Ocean right in front of my eyes. The daughter screamed and cried out to the man as he plunged into the water.

Real life is more spectacular than this view

My only thought at that moment was that I had just witnessed a death. I was shaking and crying and frankly, stunned at what I had seen. My mind had a hard time comprehending the tragedy. His fall had been so quiet.

I have seen far too movies in my lifetime where the person falls but then the camera pans to the hero clinging to the side of the building, or we discover there’s a ledge and the actor has landed safely a few feet below. Unfortunately, that was not the case for this man.

I turned away from the situation and started running toward someone with a phone. I had been cheap on this trip and had opted to skip paying for cell service. Normally I always get the international cell package but not this time—the one time I really needed it.

All in one views are everywhere in this country

The tour guide came running toward me along with one of my daughters. I screamed, “Someone fell off the edge, dial the emergency number.”

The tour guide wanted to know if it was anyone from the group. I replied, “No.” She was relieved but called for help. By that time, many people were running toward the accident. My daughter ran to me to hold me as I cried.

The son and daughter of the victim were doing all they could to get their father back on land. Apparently he was being watched by angels on this particular day. He had landed in the water as the waves had come in. If the tide had been out, he would have landed on extremely jagged rocks and would probably have died instantly.

Closer to the Atlantic

The daughter continued screaming down to her dad. She even attempted to jump in to get him. The tour guide who had been taking photos at the time of the man’s accident grabbed her backpack and stopped her from becoming the second victim.

The 65-year-old man was clinging to seaweed as a way to prevent him from being taken out to sea.

Our tour guide ran over to talk to the daughter and asked her if she spoke English. She said, “A little.” The tour guide told her to say encouraging things to her dad like, “Hang on, the emergency services are coming. They’re almost here,” and things like that.

I stood stock still and cried. At some point, our bus driver came rushing up to see why nobody was on the bus yet. Apparently we were all late.


I explained to Tomasz, as briefly as possible, what had happened and then he ran off. I didn’t pay attention to where he ran off to because, by this point, the lady who owned the cafe where we’d coffee only 30 minutes before had run to the spot where the elderly man had fallen into the ocean. She had a rope that she thought would be of help but it wasn’t nearly long enough.

She explained that she had more rope at her cafe and asked for someone to run and get it. One of the girls from our group was a very fast runner and she volunteered to go. Two other women who are runners from our group followed her. Everyone who could do anything were doing what they could to get this stranger to safety.

Who knew waves can sneak up on you?

Someone yelled that a boat was coming to rescue the man—not Iceland’s version of the Coast Guard but some random fishermen. I only hoped they would get to the man in time before hypothermia set in, if it hadn’t already. The ocean temperature in southern Iceland is only 50 degrees Fahrenheit with the air temperature that day rising only to 42 but with incredible winds.

When I heard a boat was coming to rescue the man, I walked over to the cliff, specifically avoiding getting too close to the arch and the edge. A few other women were also watching because they had been standing right next to the older gentleman when he lost his footing and fell into the Atlantic. We all needed to see the rescue of the man. We needed to verify he was alive, otherwise, we would have been even more traumatized than we already were.

I heard the boat’s engine before I saw it and the tears flowed again. We were all huddled at the cliff’s edge crying. I watched as the boat got closer and closer to the man. Fortunately there were three fishermen on board because the victim was dead weight.

Desvío Músargjá

One of the fishermen steered the boat and kept it near the man in the water and the other two pulled the man into the boat. He didn’t provide any resistance but he didn’t provide any help either. He couldn’t. He appeared to be frozen but the most important part was he was alive.

I watched as they applied a heavy blanket to the man and sped away.

Those of us who had witnessed the near-death experience breathed a collective sigh of relief and applauded loudly. Some of us wept from relief as we walked back to our warm cars and tour buses. We relived the experience, retelling each other the story from our point of view. While on the well-worn path to the parking lot and our bus, we passed the marina and saw that the man who had just been plucked out of the water was now in an ambulance.

Dramatic clouds

Who knew the marina was so close to the place where the man fell into the water? As it turns out, Tomasz, our bus driver, knew. After he talked with me, he had run to the marina, convinced a fisherman to rescue the victim, helped him get his boat started, and convinced two other fishermen to help as well.

Tomasz had only been in Iceland for about 18 months but had taken so many tourists on so many tours he knew the area extremely well. He knew the marina was nearby and he achieved what the emergency responders were unable to do for nearly 30 minutes: respond appropriately to an emergency with a boat. Tomasz saved the man’s life.

Despite the happy ending, I was unable to get the vision of the man slipping and falling off the cliff out of my mind. Just when I thought I was “over it,” the disturbing image would make its way back into my mind, whether my eyes were open or closed.

Rivers and cliffs lining the view

The tour guide and group leader both asked me if I needed to talk to someone from Red Cross—all I had to do was say the word and a volunteer would meet me at the hotel. I declined. I could not imagine getting comfort from talking to a stranger about what I had seen. I’m not putting Red Cross volunteers down, I know they’re valuable, but I couldn’t imagine talking to one myself and getting relief. I needed personal connection, not a stranger.

Fortunately, I discovered that simply texting to my husband about what happened seemed to help. It wasn’t a 100% cure but enough to let me sleep that night.

The next day one of the women on the tour asked me a specific question about the fall and I gave a lengthy reply. Others overheard the conversation and asked me for more details. Each time I opened up to another person, a little bit more of the horror was gone. By the end of the trip, I had nearly forgotten the incident.

Snow, shining in pink from the Sun

I’m not sure having a barrier or a warning would have helped in the prevention of the fall but I will never know. What I do know is that if a man or woman travels to Iceland, or any country for that matter, and doesn’t pay attention to warnings on signs, intentionally goes around safety barriers, or doesn’t have basic commonsense about getting too close to an unstable cliff, he or she may get seriously hurt, or worse, die.

In the United States we’re saved from ourselves, but not so much in other countries.

You have been warned!


Cathie Nichols, staff member at Milliver's Travels

Catherine Nichols

Originally from the East Coast, Catherine Nichols has spent the last 29 years in San Diego, and stays in the area because of its extraordinary beauty and a lovely lack of humidity. Accused by her three children of looking at too many rocks while visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the deserts of Nevada, she continues to marvel at the ever-changing southwest landscape. With trips to Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, and Europe planned, Catherine plans to reawaken her desire to see the world, and leave no stone unturned. Catherine writes in her blog at and tweets as @bloggoneit.

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One Comment

  1. Great story, Catherine. I’m glad to make contact. Let’s keep in touch.

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