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.
31 thoughts on “Why the Blue Lagoon in Iceland Isn’t a Natural Wonder”
This surely sounds like an awesome place to be! Natural or not, I am super excited to be there sometime in life…
Accuracy and history are always interesting to me, so thanks very much for sharing this. Also glad to hear that, despite the high prices, it is a system that works well for the visitor. :)
Yeah, it’s a great system.Better organized than any other I’ve been to. And it is a lot of fun, relaxing, etc., but I also want to make it clear it’s not the natural wonder people think it is. But there’s nothing wrong with that. :)
Couldn’t agree with you more Matt! Amazingly informative post. I was there Dec 2012 and loved it, but would not go again (sp after I was told by many Icelanders of the many other FREE thermal pools around the country) =D
Still cool. Been there and loved it! I’d go back!
Well we just learned something new! Regardless of whether it’s a true natural wonder or not, you can bet we’ll be making a stop whenever we make it to Iceland. Your pictures were encouraging enough!
A great informative piece! I realised that it wasn’t totally ‘natural’ when I went, but I have to say that of all the spas I’ve visited and facials I’ve had, this one had the best results – I felt clean for literally weeks afterwards and would almost go back to Iceland just for another dip!
Yes, it is a fun place :) Glad you love it so much
I was there twice, the second time during a layover and the airline arranged the excursion. The silica mud was wonderful for my skin, and the costs were comparable to getting some fancy spa treatments in NYC. It is indeed otherworldly, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
That’s a really informative post. Is that information readily available on signage or documentation they hand out, or they prefer to keep it all on the down-low?
Well no they don’t advertise it, but it’s not exactly a secret either. You just need to be a little curious to find out :)
If you go to the official blue lagoon website and open up “about us” on the front page they explain it there, so it’s definitely not something they’re ashamed of or trying to hide or anything like that. They are not trying to fool anyone.
If you looking for natural blue fire,there’s one i know.You’ll find it at Ijen crater,Banyuwangi,east java,Indonesia.Is trully wonderfull.
Had a wonderful day there; really worth the visit. The Lava Restaurant serves great food and has a good selection of wines from all over the world. The swimming area had enough quiet spots so one could relax, but go early to avoid the afternoon rush.
Can’t quite get Matt’s point here, particularly since he spends far more time praising the BL than critiquing it. The simple fact, as Matt admits, it is fun and well run, and the waters have proven healing qualities for skin afflictions. And for those into the spa scene, there’s plenty to choose from. I think it’s a great place to hit right off the plane to rewind and begin your orientation into Icelandic life. Matt’s major hang-up seems to be this “natural” thingy issue and the fact that NG declared it one of the wonders of the world. But the simple fact is that all Icelandics and any reader of a decent tour book are well aware of the hydro powerplant connection. To me it’s just another dimension of the slightly off-center (and thoroughly enjoyable) Icelandic mindset. And seriously what does the term “natural” even mean in our digitally crazed, post human world? As an Icelandic friend of mine likes to say, take the world as it comes and make of it what you can.
I first saw the Blue Lagoon as a pit stop on the tv reality show Amazing Race, and while it was obvious that it was a product placement so to say, it seemed totally natural to me. This is all pretty surprising but it wouldn’t stop me going as like you said, it seems to be a really fun time. Thanks for the info, matt.
I remember hitchhiking to the Blue Lagoon as a teenager with my friends. It was not a business thing like it is today. There was a small shed you could change into your bathing suit. No staff just the small shed. So free of charge. Before the time of the shed people would just find a good spot, or a lava lump, to change. And then came the part of climbing over the lava to get into the lagoon…!
Love your post ! I’m working on my own now. I actually thought the Blue Lagoon was one of the biggest rip offs I’ve come across traveling and was looking for information on how the water in actually heated so thanks for the info! You say the water is perfect temperature but I was there in August, it was down pouring and I was freezing, haha far from perfect temperature. I guess that’s the beauty of everyone’s own personal experience :) Thanks again for the great post.
Certainly to each their own. Maybe going for the better package would be helpful next time? We had a blast and plan on heading back for the third time on our next trip.
i want to ask. is that an eco-tourism?
I went to this Blue Lagoon a month ago whilst visiting Iceland, where as mine was not a tour but a personal visit, I really enjoyed the ambience of the place and the wonder of the purpose it serves. I did wonder why the plant was there so thanks for clearing that up.. It was sub-zero temperatures and the water was nice and hot makes like an open outdoors hot-tub looking out at the snow covered mountains. The minerals felt great on your skin not sure if it helped my pains, maybe I needed more visits, it is quite expensive though.
Interesting article. We visited yesterday and loved it! We spotted the geothermal plant on the way in and I did wonder… But who cares how it is formed? Its still one of the most luxurious and stunning places to visit.
Not sure if they’ve dropped the prices: we paid a standard entry fee included as part of an airport transfer via the lagoon. When we got there we only had to pay an extra £10 each for towel hire which also included a pint of beer, large glass of prosecco or fruit smoothie and a goodie bag of Blue Lagoon products, which according to identical ones in the shop and at the airport would have cost about £50. Bathing in the hot waters of the lagoon, sipping champagne as snow falls, covered in white silica, is one of the most relaxing, luxurious things I’ve ever done. They are developing the site and expanding. I’ll have to go back in 2017 when they’re done.
Wow you must be really popular at parties…Seriously, why is it so important to you that you took the time to write an article stressing to people that the Blue Lagoon isn’t special or isn’t worthy of being named a Natural Wonder.
Why do you have this need to portray the Blue Lagoon as less special. No one is being taken advantage of or being harmed in anyway by thinking that the Blue Lagoon is a special natural wonder. The only thing that you’ve done is is tell people that the Blue Lagoon is a manmade plant run off basin, how does that help anyone or benefit anyone in anyway?
Thanks for the informative article! I actually feel more comfortable visiting the Blue Lagoon now that I know the background. Somehow I would find it more disturbing if somebody had actually found an amazingly beautiful natural pool, taken on a massive construction project and turned it into an exclusive multi million dollar business for themselves. Now they are just recycling the water they bump from the ground efficiently to benefit multiple purposes, while also offering a great experience for tourists. I’d rather have the tourists enjoying themselves in the Blue Lagoon than taking over (and possibly eroding) the smaller, actually natural pools in Iceland.
I am so glad I read this. I am doing a lay over in Iceland to see its pure beauty and not a man made creation. I went to a spa similar to this in Costa Rica it was beautiful but the beauty to me is in the natural pools which I will be visiting rather than the Blue Lagoon.
I have been there and it is a fantastic experience. Natural beauty is important, I’ve seen my share, but man-made beauty is still very special. The incredible gardens we have seen…all man-made. The truth of its creation does not diminish its beauty or uniqueness in the least!
This is interesting content but I feel like I need to make a point!! I was there yesterday and reading about the 25 Wonders thing – and they don’t claim to be natural wonders. Angkor Wat was also on the list, as was Machu Piccu. It’s just 25 general wonders and, for me, the Blue Lagoon definitely fits into that category! Man-made or not, it’s a pretty epic and unique experience! :)
I agree, the Blue lagoon is never what people expect it to be. It’s not even naturally hot for long, it has to be warmed by heaters. I still really enjoyed it and would recommend it.
I wonder, before bilding a Lagune there must have been a natural reservoir, and probably with hot water as all over Iceland. May be used by the vikings?
I always wanted to visit Island. Can you tell, if you can swim in the whole Blue Lagoon or just in parts of it? On pictures there are not people everywhere. And is the mud in the pool really filthy and crisscrossed with hair? Thank you very much.
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