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Most avid adventurists have felt the unrelenting force pushing them to explore the northern frontiers of our planet. Something having to do with fjords, polar bears, and vast, uninhabited expanses (and…magnets?) compels us northward. While Iceland and Greenland sometimes get looped together and considered in the same breath, they’re quite distinct. For starters, Iceland is greener than Greenland, and Greenland is icier than Iceland. But how else do they differ? Here’s a little breakdown on Iceland vs Greenland when it comes to the best outdoor experience.
Iceland has a thriving capital city, well-developed roads, hipster cafes, tons of European influence, and an established tourism infrastructure. There are tons of reasons why travelers continue to flock to Iceland. A trip to Greenland, however, is going to feel more like a scientific expedition to the end of the earth rather than a casual vacation. Both are extremely beautiful places, but if you’re looking for the slight danger and giddiness sometimes involved in travel, Greenland is your destination. Here, you’re much more likely to be navigating through thick fog or vast expansive ice fields and perhaps be forced to pull out a compass.
The culture of Greenland is also going to be a bit more eye-opening than that of neighboring Iceland. While you’re not going to find any museums or nightlife, the people here come from a long line of warm, welcoming, hardworking Inuit traditions. A conversation with a native in Greenland may prove to be more rewarding and adventurous than one with a family visiting Iceland via cruise ship from New Jersey.
While both countries hardly have any native species of plants and animals (with no native reptiles or amphibians) thanks to European immigration over the centuries, there is now a good deal of interesting species in both places.
In Iceland, you will find everything from arctic foxes to humpback whales, narwhals, white-beaked dolphins, Icelandic sheep (tons of them), Icelandic horses (which is a more sociable and curious breed), and puffins — arguably the most adorable species of bird on the planet. Greenland boasts its own derivation of these species, albeit a little less exotic. You’ll find loads of seals, big-winged birds, and polar bears as well. A crucial item worth mentioning here is that while Iceland is blissfully free of mosquitos, Greenland is infested with them during the summer months. It’s a close call, but when it comes to diversity in wildlife, Iceland takes the cake.
It’s likely that your grandchildren will be putting glaciers in the same category as Myspace and social security — otherworldly phenomena that only existed in time foregone. So, if you’re looking to knock off the bucket list item of seeing one of these ecological behemoths, Iceland or Greenland are both good starting points. While the two countries have permanent ice caps, Greenland has a lot more. Iceland is covered in about 11% of permanent ice, whereas Greenland is covered in about 80% of it. The tradeoff here is warmth, as Iceland gets warmer in the summertime and not as cold in the wintertime.
Dipping in Hot Springs
Iceland is one of the world’s most active hotbeds of geothermal activity. The country has literally hundreds of volcanoes (30 of which are active) due to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. While this definitely poses some inherent risks (one eruption in the 18th century caused a famine that killed a quarter of the island’s population), it also means there are tons of beckoning hot springs. While the Blue Lagoon is easily one of the most amazing things to do in Iceland, there’s also the Secret Lagoon, the Myvatn Nature Baths, and the Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool, all of which are worthy of your time. Greenland, on the other hand, has no volcanoes, and the options for hot springs that are actually warm enough to dip into are few and far between.
Seeing the Northern Lights
One of the main reasons outdoor enthusiasts elect to head north is to get a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. Seeing vast splotches and streaks of neon green, yellow, blue, and purple in the night sky is a must-do, and also part of our Guide to Creating the Perfect Bucket List. Because the capital city of Reykjavik does give off some light pollution, you’ll need to head to the hills with any of the established tour agencies. Greenland is also an excellent place if the weather permits, but the point here goes to Iceland due to the sheer number of tours and accessibility.
If you’re looking to explore the beautiful scenery of Iceland or Greenland, both places are likely to do a number on your bank account. While airfare to Greenland is pretty sparse and extremely expensive, the overall cost of living and exploring in Iceland is through the roof. Everything from hotels to meals and excursions is likely to set you back a few thousand dollars, depending on your budget. Iceland was recently ranked as the fourth most expensive country, but Greenland isn’t far behind. The only saving grace here is that Iceland’s geographic features are a bit more accessible, so you may not have to splash out on as many guided tours, but the overall cost will likely be more. In terms of a more affordable adventure vacation, Greenland wins out.
Speaking of accessibility, this is something you should definitely consider before heading north. What Greenland gains in its “adventure” factor, it loses in accessibility. According to Hiking Iceland: The Top Routes and What to Bring, there’s a good amount of adventure within a reasonable radius of Reykjavik. What’s more, Greenland is over 20 times the size of Iceland, so you’ll be forced to cover some serious mileage if you want to experience the best parts of the country. Iceland has roads, and where it doesn’t, it has 4×4-friendly trails that make things still somewhat reachable. Greenland barely has roads. Again, there’s something to be said for commuting by dog sled, kayak, and foot, but convenience isn’t one of them.
While it feels slightly unfair to boil down an outdoors experience to a quantitative point system, what’s done is done. Iceland is your winner, folks!