When it comes to travel, Greenland has its own rules-which are nature’s rules really. In fact, nature rules so completely that the weather report determines your itinerary, as do the tricky logistics of Greenland’s giant glacial geography.
For starters, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world: for every human being who lives on the coastal fringe, there are 15 square miles of silent, empty ice rising up in the middle of the country. More than 80% of the land is covered by permanent ice cap, which can only be crossed by air or by skis.
Also, did I mention? There are no roads between any two towns. Getting from A to B in Greenland is very much an adventure in its own right.
What is most shocking about traveling in Greenland is how remarkably empty a place it is. Most of us have never confronted such vast, undisturbed landscapes–no matter how well-traveled we pretend to be. The feeling of being this tiny singular person up against such gargantuan nature is odd and overwhelming. Our intellects tend to panic a little–where are the highways, streetlights, the telephone wires, the ambient glowing dome of the suburbs at night? After you’ve arrived in some town, your mind ponders the landscape and begins to realize that the only way out is to hike–and then to where? On foot, most villages are a good 4 to 5 days apart–and that’s in the summer when the weather is nice.
If you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys wandering in their rent-a-car or hopping from one place to the next in some tightly-packed trip, please skip Greenland. For the others out there–those of who sit all week at desks with computers and crave the open outdoors, then Greenland is the pinnacle of our big hiking dream. Back at home, you might drive a few hours to reach the closest state park that’s overrun with hot-dog roasters living in RVs with blasting rap music. In Greenland, a two-minute helicopter hop puts you into true and utter wilderness where if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll die.And so, Greenland separates one kind of traveler from another. In my hotel lobby, a giant wall map of the country spells out the tiny fishing villages around the coast, then announces the big, white center of the country in bold letters: IKKE OPMÅLT (“Unexplored” in Danish). If that makes your mouth water a little, then Greenland’s gonna be good to you.
Just bear in mind that getting to Greenland is the easy part. There are only two major international commercial airports in Greenland: Narsarsuaq in the south and Kangerlussuaq, right above the Arctic Circle. Both were built by the US military back in the days of the Korean War, and both runways are laid out in glacial deltas of grey silt that lie at the base of tremendous fjords.
From either airport, smaller flights connect to various regions of the country–north, south, east, and west (the most populated area). But due to the rugged landscape, and the overall remoteness of so many towns and villages, a lot of these “flights” take place in helicopters, scheduled daily, like busses that stop in one town and then the next. They are also very, very expensive.
Air Greenland is the country’s flagship carrier. With a virtual monopoly, very low passenger numbers, few and scattered airports, highly seasonal travel and even higher costs, a ticket on Air Greenland can be depressingly pricey. For instance, flying from Greenland’s west coast capital Nuuk to the east coast town of Kulusuk will set you back $1,800 round trip (yes, in economy class). Air Iceland offers several (cheaper) seasonal flights from Reykjavík, but it means leaving the country every time you want to reconnect to a new place.
What that means is that Greenlanders don’t travel so much in their own country. Many Greenlanders who live in one part of the country have never visited another part. When flying to Spain is cheaper than flying to the next town over, most Greenlanders choose Spain. For that reason, family reunions sometimes happen outside the country-it’s usually easier and cheaper to gather relatives for a week of shopping in Copenhagen then for everyone to meet up in some chosen Greenlandic town.
Similarly, the reality of transportation in Greenland is a major limiting factor for visitors. Many come with the erroneous belief that they will “do” Greenland, darting around the country like a tour of England, only to realize their budget or a flight schedule confines them to one tiny corner of the country or even a single town. Accept the reality of Greenland and enjoy what you can see. Pick an area–say the South–fly there, and then invest your budget in shorter jumps between towns. This might be on the subsidized helicopter rides (about $100 a pop) to boats and ferries between “closer” towns, ranging from $50-$100.
Another word of advice–always get a window seat. On helicopters, that means being a little pushy since the seats are not assigned. You’re spending a lot of money to be in this country, and while the flights and boat rides might seem long and functional, they are always scenic. It’s how you will see the in-between places that define the country as the great arctic wilderness that it is.
Air Greenland provided transportation for the author during his travels in Greenland, for which he is very grateful. He still thinks their tickets are very, very expensive.