In Iceland on a Quest for the Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights Iceland

Photo:Thilo Bubek

Early December the renowned British newspaper The Telegraph published an article where it claimed seeing the northern lights was Britons’ most sought after travel experience. Topping the Brits list, you should put the name Pedro.

Just like everyone else, I’ve also dreamed of seeing those shiny lights up in the sky. But now one question:

WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

Officially called aurora borealis, this phenomenon that takes place near the north pole and can be seen in Alaska, the north of Canada, Scandinavia and the north of Russia, is a natural light display in the sky caused by the coalition of energetic particles with atoms in the atmosphere. Its south pole counterpart is known as aurora australis.

MY QUEST FOR AURORA

In the beginning of January, in the height of the Scandinavian winter, when the sun rose at 11am and set at 3pm, I spent a weekend in Iceland with plans to see the aurora borealis. In recent years it was seen a few times in the capital Reykjavik, but chances of seeing it are considerably higher away from the city lights.

There are no guarantees one will spot them. Seeing them will depend on a number of factors which include weather conditions, intensity of the lights, and luck. Yes, luck… Even in nights with clear skies it is possible it will now appear. Could it just be that Aurora is shy and won’t put on a show for everyone?

It had rained all day long, and up to a couple of hours prior to the scheduled time I didn’t know if the tour would happen. Then I received a call confirming the tour and shortly afterwards the tour company picked me up at the hotel.

I was disappointed when I realised there were three buses from the same company doing the tour. We drove to the outskirts of Reykjavik and after thirty minutes we parked in a vast open space. There were tourists from all over the world, all equally excited to watch a colourful Aurora do her dance routine in the dark skies. We hoped to see it for as long as possible, since the show can last anything from just a few seconds to several hours.

Seeing the Northern Lights Iceland

Photo: Ragnar Sigurdsson

We waited to for about half an hour to no avail. Then we went to an area nearly 20 miles away and got off the bus again with our cameras, tripods and a lot of excitement. We stared at the dark polar sky waiting for the bright green lights to shine on our faces. And nothing happened. Some thick clouds moved just above us and we resigned to the fact Aurora was probably hiding from us.

Once more we got on the bus. Two of them drove back to Reykjavik and our driver, who had been on the phone with others, gave us the option to do return or to drive further away. We opted for the latter.

We drove to a field not far from Keflavik airport and for the third time we got off the bus with our paraphernalia. The cold could probably freeze one’s soul, but we were determined to do everything we could to see Aurora. Suddenly, we saw a faded light patch in the sky, which disappeared as quickly as it came. Aurora?? This light patch between the clouds appeared again and some tourists started taking pictures with flash. What on earth were they doing?

We raised our hopes and waited very apprehensively for another 15 minutes, until a thick layer of clouds covered the sky, like curtains coming down on a theatre stage. Then we resigned to the fact we would not see her. One of the bus passengers, who had his super duper camera on a slow shutter, captured the patch of light. It was indeed the Aurora Borealis, much more majestic than what we saw with the naked eye.

Sadly it wasn’t on that occasion I could see the (in)famous northern lights and have the pleasure to share pictures as amazing as the ones illustrating this post.

Seeing the Northern Lights Iceland

Photo: Cedrik Strahm

Having said that, let’s just say my quest isn’t over, and I’ll keep chasing Aurora like a paparazzo chasing a star. Not that those stars are as enchanting as Aurora.

THE TOUR

There are several ways to see the northern lights, from luxury tours including flight, luxury hotel, private car and driver to large simple tours, like mine. Mine, which had a duration of three hours, was with Reykjavik Excursions and cost me 5.400 Kronas (USD47, £29, €35) in a bus for roughly 40 people, including free wifi. They will collect you at your hotel or guest house and on the way back you will be dropped in the city centre. There are no guarantees you will see the lights, so the tours leave depending on weather conditions. If you don’t see them, you can use your ticket a second time. Another company that offers similar tours is Iceland Tours.

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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Agness Walewinder December 24, 2013, 10:40 am

    The tour is not as expensive as I though! Great experience worth every penny!

    • Pedro @ Travel with Pedro December 26, 2013, 4:19 pm

      Hi Agness, it's true, this type of tour is very affordable. But it's tempting to go on a private tour, which would cost at least five times that amount. I'll try to see them again early next year. Fingers crossed! :-)

  • Hayley McKenna December 25, 2013, 12:25 am

    Great post Pedro! Such a shame you didnt see it! Its one of my dreams too!

  • Cez January 2, 2014, 1:31 pm

    Stunning is not a sufficient word to describe it. I wonder when I'll get the chance to see Northern Lights myself, but for now your photos would do! Thanks you

    • Pedro @ Travel with Pedro January 7, 2014, 8:39 pm

      I agree, Cez! Unfortunately my quest hasn&#39;t finished yet, so I hope my next post will have my own photos. <br /><br />Thanks for the visit!

  • Lindsey Montcalm January 7, 2014, 9:34 pm

    I saw them last year in Norway. It was out of this world and I&#39;d love to repeat the experience and Iceland sounds good. I&#39;m surprised about the price of the tour too.

    • Pedro @ Travel with Pedro January 11, 2014, 11:30 pm

      Hi Lindsey, you got me jealous now! I&#39;ll definitely try to see them again this year, hopefully it&#39;ll work out this time.<br /><br />Thanks for the visit!

  • eemusings January 10, 2014, 4:51 am

    I&#39;d love to see a lights display as intense as this! We saw the lights for free by driving a little way out of Reykjavik but they were very faint (it was the start of the season and not THAT cold).

    • Pedro @ Travel with Pedro January 11, 2014, 11:32 pm

      Hi there! That&#39;s right, if you&#39;re driving it&#39;s much easier and cheaper to see them. You also have the benefit of being wherever you want without the crowds.<br /><br />Thanks for the visit!

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