Earlier this year one of my favorite travel magazines made an announcement that surprised me a bit. In a special “Wonders of the World” edition, National Geographic listed the Blue Lagoon in Iceland as one of the most impressive wonders of the world. Now this declaration seems fine and normal on the surface, until you realize that the Blue Lagoon really isn’t a natural phenomenon at all.
More than half a million people visit Iceland every year. This may not sound a lot, but keep in mind that there are only 320,000 residents of this northern island. Of this half a million tourists, more than 400,000 visit the Blue Lagoon thermal spa alone. Almost every tourist who visits Iceland visits the Blue Lagoon. This is a stunning statistic and I’m almost positive no attraction in the world can lay claim to a similar market share of visiting tourists. To learn how this has come to be and why the Blue Lagoon isn’t really a natural phenomenon, you have to first learn about the (somewhat) short history of what is arguably the world’s most famous spa.
Iceland is often called the Land of Fire and Ice due to the incredible geological activity that is seen around the country every day. Because of its unique position between two continental plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers and lava fields define the natural character of this constantly changing nation. It only makes sense then that geothermal energy accounts for about a quarter of all power used in Iceland and meets the heating and hot water requirements of approximately 87% of all buildings in Iceland.
In the mid 1970s, the Svartsengi geothermal plant was built about 20 minutes from the international airport at Keflavik and 40 minutes from the capital city of Reykjavik. The process of generating heat from this plant is fairly simple. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal hot water heating system. What happens next to the water though has become a multimillion industry in its own right.
After the water is used to provide heat for the water system, it is fed into what we know today as the Blue Lagoon. The water from the Blue Lagoon is a direct result of the geothermal plant found right next door.
Visitors to the massive spa complex may not even see the nearby power plant, much less realize that it is the source of the Blue Lagoon magic. It’s cleverly hidden just out of sight and unless you look, you probably won’t notice it and if you do, it probably won’t make an impact.
So when National Geographic called the Blue Lagoon a wonder of the world, was it completely accurate? Mostly. Yes, the water that feeds the Blue Lagoon is naturally occurring, but I don’t think the spa is natural in the way most visitors believe it is. There wasn’t an existing pool that someone found and decided to make into a tourist attraction. A pool was formed, quite unnaturally, and transformed over the years into the mega-business it has become.
But that doesn’t mean the Blue Lagoon doesn’t have certain benefits and it doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages 98–102 °F, the perfect temperature for soaking. Having been there myself, I can attest that it is indeed a fun experience. The waters are warm and pleasantly murky and the landscape surrounding the spa is beautiful and otherworldly. But it’s also a machine.
When you first arrive, usually as part of an organized tour, you’re fed through the intake center where you are confronted with a variety of options.
- Entrance fee for adults – 30 Euros (includes locker rental)
- Towel – 5 Euros
- Bathing suit rental – 5 Euros
- Bath robe rental – 9 Euros
After paying at least 30 Euros, and usually more, then it’s time to join the herds in the changing rooms (leave modesty outside) before proceeding to the event itself. I’ve been to quite a few of these spas recently and there’s no doubt that the Blue Lagoon was the best managed. Guests are given electronic bracelets that serve as locks for lockers as well as a virtual charge card for any food or drinks you may purchase while you take the waters. Like I said, it’s a machine, but a beneficent one. They are intent on making money, yes, but they are also intent in providing the guest with a great experience. And that’s what I had, even after spending 5 Euro for a towel and $20 for a sandwich and a soda.
While the Blue Lagoon isn’t really a natural wonder, not in the purest sense, it is a natural-ish quasi-wonder and after visiting, I understand why every tourist feels drawn to the site. Whether by design or accident, taking the waters at the Blue Lagoon, enveloped by aqua blue water and surrounded by immense lava fields is truly an experience you will find nowhere else in the world.