The cliffs at Látrabjarg, in the Westfjords area of Iceland, are said to be Europe’s largest bird cliffs, and also Europe’s westernmost point (if the Azores aren’t counted). In spring – I was there in the last week of May – the cliffs are home to thousands, maybe millions, of sea birds, nesting and rearing their young. Gannets, guillemots and razorbills abound, but for me the puffins were the star of the show. This was my first time to see puffins, and although you can find them around the coast of Britain, my home country, I had not had the chance to view them closer to home.
I was surprised how close you could get to the puffins, probably within a metre – the birds seemed completely unfazed by humans and quite quizzical. In fact, I was probably more scared than them, for they nest on the very edge of the cliffs which, at Látrabjarg, can rise up to 440m high. To get this close to the edge to get a good view and the perfect photo you need a strong head for heights!
The puffins prefer to nest in the grassy tufts at the edge or just below the top layer of soil on the cliff, the other birds tended to be on the bare rocks further down, so although it was easy to photograph many species, the puffins were definitely the best to capture, without the needs for zoom lenses. Puffins form long-term relationships and share parenting duties, so if you wait around long enough you can see the parents taking turns to swoop down to the ocean to fish while one remains with the eggs or young. As you look out to sea there are constant comings and goings of all species to be seen, and maybe the occasional seal.
It was quite a drive, a lot of the time on gravel roads, to the ‘westernmost point of Europe’, but it was well worth it. From the main part of the island, and from the main circular road, Route 1, take Route 60 north through Búðardalur and then follow the southern coast of the Westfjords peninsula. This stretch of the journey is a mix of metalled and gravel roads, taking you up and down quite a few steep coastal valleys with terrific views at each summit. At Flókalundur, take a left on Route 62 until you see the 612 heading left to Breiðavík and Látrabjarg. This last stretch, almost all gravel roads, is quite slow going due to the steep gradients, tight bends and general road conditions but offers spectacular views of hidden beaches, azure seas and snowy peaks and you’ll be surprised at how many tiny villages are dotted along this road, seemingly at the world’s end, with colourful wooden houses often with boats outside. Finally, the road ends at the lighthouse which stands on the westernmost point of land in the country, looking out over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Allow a full day trip to Látrabjarg from within the Westfjords region – the distances are not too great, but the roads are slow and you’ll want plenty of stops to capture the immense views. A trip from beyond Route 1 in a day would be pushing it. Ísafjörður is the main town of the region which offers numerous accommodation options.
My trip to Látrabjarg was a big highlight during my week in Iceland, in a country full of highlights. Even the weather improved just for this trip – the rest of the week in May there were constant gales, it snowed every day and temperatures didn’t get above 9 degrees Celsius – here, the sun shone, the air was still and the temperature rose to a balmy 15 degrees! Perfect conditions to admire these beautiful creatures in their natural, and very wild, environment.