Greenland holds a sort of mythical status in the eyes of many travelers. Everybody who has seen a world map knows where Greenland is, yet nobody goes. I have only 1 Facebook friend who has visited Greenland, a Thai guy who worked on an Arctic cruise ship.
Speaking of cruises, the polar cruise companies that sail in Antarctica take their ships to Greenland in the northern hemisphere summer months. My Antarctic guides actually preferred Greenland over Antarctica because you get both the big ice and the Inuit culture, while Antarctica is nearly devoid of human culture.
When looking up trips to take in early August 2020, I had a few restrictions:
- It had to be in the Schengen Area due to my soon-to-expire Spanish residency card. If I happened to lose the residency card, I wanted to be guaranteed entry back into Spain before the card expired to start business school.
- The country had to allow both Spanish residents and people who had been to the US in the last 14 days.
After a lot of research, I narrowed it down to three options: Mont Blanc, Denmark/Greenland and Poland.
The weather on Mont Blanc was dangerously unfavorable to climbing and Poland can be visited outside of the summer, so I settled on Denmark and Greenland!
Logistics of Greenland:
Despite its central location between Europe and North America, Greenland is extremely inaccessible. The easiest and only year-round option is on Air Greenland which only flies from Copenhagen, Denmark to Kangerlussuaq (a tiny city of 500 people). From Kangerlussuaq, you can fly on a tiny Dash 8 plane to other cities. Due to the monopoly, pricing is expensive: expect to pay at least $800 for the roundtrip flight from Denmark plus a few hundred more for the internal flights. Unexpectedly, Kangerlussuaq has consistently clear weather and the flights from Copenhagen are almost never cancelled due to weather, even in the winter.
Air Iceland Connect also flies to a few cities in Greenland from Reykjavik during the summer. These flights are slightly cheaper – around $600-700. Despite the shorter distance, the flying time is almost the same as from Copenhagen due to the smaller, slower plane. The benefits of flying on Air Iceland are that you do not need to stop in Kangerlussuaq and you can combine the trip with Iceland, an amazing destination in its own right. But, there are fewer flights.
If you want to travel domestically within Greenland, you can either fly on Air Greenland (most likely with a stop in Kangerlussuaq) or take a ferry. The ferry costs about the same as the plane, but trips take days instead of hours (Greenland is BIG). There are no roads between cities in Greenland.
The most popular tourist destinations are Ilulissat and Nuuk in West Greenland and Tasiilaq in East Greenland, but there are other places to visit.
When booking my trip, I had to work backwards to finalize my travel dates. On the front side of the trip, Denmark required a 6-night stay before I could fly to Greenland. The earliest I could get to Denmark was on the 8th. So the soonest I could fly out was on the 13th. On the back end, my NIE expired on the 19th, so I needed to back in Spain on the 18th of August. That meant, I would have to leave Greenland on the 17th. 5 days in Greenland seemed like a good amount of time to visit based on my research.
Now that I had my dates, I had to figure out where to go. I knew I wanted to visit Ilulissat because of the icefjord and because it was very far north. Because a same-day connection back from Ilulissat to the Copenhagen flight was only an hour, I decided to play it safe and break up the return journey into 2 legs: first to Kangerlussuaq on the 15th and then 2 days later back to Copenhagen (Air Greenland was not flying on the 16th in summer 2020).
On The Ground Planning:
For most of my trips, I try to develop an itinerary for each day. I don’t always stick to the plan, but I believe that researching places makes me more informed and better able to maximize my time in each place.
For Greenland, I did not make any plans or really do any research other than lodging. All the tours shown online were very expensive and I had a feeling that I would be able to find cheaper options on arrival once I started asking around. Therefore, I made no plans and came in with no expectations.
This ended up working out really well for me.
In a normal year, I was told that lodging and excursions are booked out for the summer months in advanced. The company I used in Kangerlussuaq said every excursion from June-September was completely sold out pre-pandemic. So, if you are planning to visit in a normaly year, it’s probably best to plan well ahead.
In terms of paying for things, the currency is the Danish Kroner. Most businesses accept credit cards, but individual people only take cash. I had to pay cash for both my lodgings as well as a whale watching tour. All the cities in Greenland have ATMs that run 22 hours/day (don’t ask).
Special COVID Considerations:
Due to the COVID pandemic, there were exceptional requirements that I had to manage.
First, I had to get into Denmark. Denmark only allowed tourists from certain nationalities (I snuck in just hours before Spaniards got banned!!). Additionally, tourists had to stay 6 nights in the country. Based on chats with other tourists, this requirement might not apply if you are traveling to Greenland.
Greenland had two of its own COVID requirements. The first is to fill out a contact tracing form called the SUMUT. The second is to get a COVID test from a Nordic country within 5 days of the flight. If you are getting tested in Denmark, the test had to be done at the Rigshospitalet (the main hospital in Copenhagen). Normally, tests at this location require a prescription, but if you are flying Air Greenland, you can email the hospital and they will get you an appointment.
The test itself was very easy. The only thing I needed to do was to go to the Secretary booth after taking the test and tell them I am flying on Air Greenland. They will then automatically send the test results to the airline. Just make sure to tell everyone you see that you are flying Air Greenland and they will steer you in the right direction.
If you test positive for the virus, the Danish government will contact you within 24 hours of taking the test. If you are negative, the Danish government will not contact you- even if you want to see the results. This was quite nerve-wracking. I knew I didn’t have COVID, but was unsure if the hospital actually sent the results to Air Greenland. They did and it all worked out fine…but I was scared.
At the Copenhagen Airport:
At the check-in counter, the process felt like any other flight except for the COVID stuff. They checked the SUMUT form receipt on my phone and found my name on the list of COVID-negative patients sent over from the hospital.
The flight operated out of the Schengen area terminal.
The flight itself was on comfortable widebody A330 with a beautiful cabin interior. It took 4.5-hours to reach Kangerlussuaq. There was a 4-hour time change so we landed almost at the same time we took off. Most of the passengers were Inuit, but I sat next to a guy in the Danish navy. It seems that the Danish people that are here are usually here for work in short (few week) stints.
We talked a bit about political situation. Greenland has been part of Denmark since the Viking times over 1,000 years ago. Erik the Red named it Greenland. The legend goes that he named it Greenland to attract more settlers. Another explanation is that he landed in Southern Greenland, which in the summer actually is very green.
In 1979, Greenland was granted home rule where they became responsible for most internal affairs. Ever since then, they have obtained more and more autonomy to the point where they are now about as close as you can get to being independent. Denmark still controls Greenland’s defense and foreign policies. Denmark also still provides lots of monetary support. Unlike mainland Denmark, Greenland is NOT part of the EU nor European Economic Area.
It appears that the relationship is a good one between Greenland and Denmark but there are people that want full independence.
One reason some Greenlanders want independence is that Denmark (under the banner of Europe) has shielded Greenland from foreign powers- namely China and the US- who want their share of Greenland’s riches. Full independence could allow them to deal with these other governments, but it could also open up Pandora’s box.
The sailor also told me that Trump’s comments on buying Greenland caused quite the stir. The Americans have apparently tried to purchase Greenland since the 1940’s. It has never been for sale. The reason the comments caused such a controversy is that the Danish prime minister responded to Trump’s comments. Some Greenlanders argued that the Danish Prime Minister has no right to respond. Rather, the Greenlandic Parliament should have responded. It is clear that the level of autonomy is a tricky political situation.
Transit at Kangerlussuaq:
After landing at Kangerlussuaq, I got my passport checked by a very serious guard. Non-EU citizens are forced to show their passport and get the coveted Greenland stamp. It looks like a normal Danish/EU entry stamp except the city is listed as Kalaalit Nuunat, the local word for Greenland.
By the way, there is a Greenlandic language. It is an Inuit language. So most Greenlanders know Greenlandic, Danish, and English. The people of east Greenland actually speak a different language called East Greenlandic, which is related but not mutually intelligible with West Greenlandic. Since the West Greenlandic is the official language, these people know 4 languages: East Greenlandic, West Greenlandic, Danish and English. Whew!
The first thing you’ll notice when looking at the Greenlandic language is that the words are very long. My hypothesis for this is that there are fewer letters and therefore a fewer number of sounds. In order to cover all the words, they had to make longer words. The second thing you’ll notice when looking at the Greenlandic language is the use of the letter q. While in English, q almost always has to be followed by a u, this is not the case in Greenlandic. The most famous Greenlandic word, kayak, is spelled qayaq in Greenlandic. Additionally near Ilulissat, there is a town called Saqqaq.
I then boarded the next flight to Ilulissat. Interestingly, there was no security check to board the internal flight. No metal detector. No nothing. I suppose Greenland is a pretty safe place. The plane was a 7-row Dash 8 plane. It’s pretty rare that I fly in a plane this small.
I sat next to a Greenlander who was living in Denmark, found a German girlfriend (who was working at a Greenland travel company) and is now moving back to Greenland with her since she got transferred to work in Greenland. He currently doesn’t have a job but will probably work as a carpenter.
Although the Danish government spends a lot of money on Greenland, this guy argued that Denmark is actually getting the better deal. Since there are so few people living in Greenland, all the high-skilled jobs that can’t be filled by locals: medical staff, carpenters, construction work, goes to Danish citizens that get paid really well. He believes that those salaries, which normally come from the Danish government, totals more than the aid given to Greenlanders.
The flight took 45 minutes. Along the way we caught spectacular views of the endless lakes and mountain valleys. In the far distance loomed the massive Greenland Ice Cap, a field of ice covering 90% of the island.
The landing at Ilulissat was dramatic over a fjord completely bogged in by icebergs. We then made a sweeping turn around the town and landed on the short runway. The tiny airport has a fun pink and blue color scheme. While retrieving bags, a security guard with a drug-sniffing dog patrolled the area and stopped a hippie-looking guy. I am surprised by the seriousness of the Greenlandic security given that you can only fly here from Denmark and sometimes Iceland. But then again, Copenhagen has Christiania Freetown where weed is ubiquitous. Maybe that’s what they’re trying to stop.