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Large Countries With Surprisingly Few Residents

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It's often heavily populated countries that get the most attention. With hundreds of millions (if not billions) of residents, there's always something newsworthy happening in India, China, the United States, or Brazil. But not every large landmass is teeming with people. In fact, some of the countries with the most acreage have surprisingly few residents. Here are six of them.

6

Argentina

Organic vineyards near Mendoza in Argentina
Source: aaabbbccc/ Shutterstock

Argentina has a total area of 1,073,518 square miles, a population of 45,479,118, and a population density of 43 people per square mile. Argentina ranks ninth in the world in terms of area. Although the country does have a higher population density than the other countries on this list, only about a third of Argentinians live in the capital, Buenos Aires, where 34,800 people are packed into every square mile. This means there’s a whole expanse of gorgeous countryside where you won’t find another person for miles. You'll probably see cows, though. (Argentinians are well-documented meat lovers.)

More than half of the country's landscape is used for agricultural purposes, which is how Argentina earned its reputation as a producer of steak and fine wine. Among Argentina's wine regions, Mendoza is the largest and the most well-known. The area, with its rich, Andean soil and ideal grape-growing climate, accounts for about 70% of the country's wine production. You'll notice labels like Trapiche and Pampas del Sur in your local liquor store. The former is Argentina's leading export winery. Touring this wine region will keep you busy — and tipsy — for days.

5

Russia

Church on the edge of a river in the Volga region of Russia, the city of Yoshkar-Ola
Credit: Mordolff/ iStock

The largest country in the world has a total area of 6,601,668 square miles and a population of 141,722,205, which gives it a population density of 23 people per square mile. A negative growth rate may mean an even lower population density in the near future.

Nearly three-quarters of Russia's population resides in urban areas, giving the western fifth of the country a far higher population density than the country as a whole. This is where you'll find Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moscow alone is home to more than 12 million people, making it the largest city in Russia and Europe. Unsurprisingly, it's also one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

But if you’re looking for a solitary retreat far (and we mean far) from urban areas, Siberia is your best bet — and yes, the legendarily remote, sparsely populated area (about three people per square kilometer) has much to offer tourists. You'll find the enigmatic Lake Baikal, the largest, deepest freshwater lake in the world, holding an estimated one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water. Known as the "Galapagos of Russia" for its ancient and diverse ecosystem, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some tour operators host picnics on the shores of the lake, where tourists can sample unique dishes featuring a variety of Baikal fishes and seafood.

For more backwoods adventures, the pristine Siberian Tundra offers opportunities for ice fishing and guided wildlife tours in reindeer territory. If you prefer a more leisurely scenic tours, take an eight-day, cross-country trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, where you’ll see Russia’s most famous cities and landscapes.

4

Libya

Capital city of Tripoli skyline in Libya
Credit: Noctiluxx/ iStock

Libya is the 18th largest country in the world at 679,362 square miles, making it a little bigger than Alaska. Still, all that space is home to just 6,890,535 people for a population density of 10 people per square mile. The country is one of 11 spanned by the Sahara Desert, so residents largely live near the Mediterranean coastline. More than 90% of the population can be found in urban centers there.

While you'd expect to see a lot of sand in a Saharan country like Libya, you might not expect to find a volcano. But Waw an Namus is a defiant caldera in the middle of the desert that creates an oasis with three beautiful lakes. This is where it helps to speak a little Arabic. "Waw" means "oasis," which makes sense because of the lakes. Meanwhile, "Namus" means "mosquito." If you visit Waw an Namus, this also makes sense — because it hosts a high density of mosquitoes who haven't fed in a while due to the low population of humans in the area.

Libya is also home to incredible Roman ruins like Leptis Magna and the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. Near the border with Algeria, the Acacus Mountains are home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tadrart Acacus. Here, you’ll find the world’s most elaborate cave paintings. These ancient rock-art sites are some of the most culturally significant locations on Earth. The paintings were created over a period of thousands of years, starting around 12,000 B.C.

3

Australia

The ground and hills of the West Macdonnell Ranges, Australia
Credit:TonyFeder/ iStock

Australia has a total area of 2,988,901 square miles and a population of 23,470,145. In terms of the whole country, that's a population density of nine people per square mile. It's not uncommon to meet an Australian when you travel to other destinations, so it's easy to think this small island country must be highly populated. However, this is not the case in the slightest.

Although Australia is home to large, well-known cities like Sydney (with a population of 5,230,330), Melbourne (4,963,349), and Brisbane (2,462,637),  it’s actually one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. As a whole, the nation is only home to more than 23 million people, while the contiguous United States is similar in size but home to over 300 million people!

If you take a look at any population maps of Australia, you'll notice a whole lot of grey. Grey often stands for "no population,” and that's because snakes and kangaroos can’t be counted. This island nation has six states and 10 territories. Three of the territories are internal: the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Northern Territory, and Jervis Bay Territory. Meanwhile, the other seven are external territories. According to the World Population Review, the external territories of Ashmore & Cartier Islands and Heard Island & McDonald Islands are uninhabited.

Australia's population increases around the coasts — especially the east coast. And it's no wonder. This area is home to some of the world's most beautiful beaches and surf sites. Here, large, multicultural cities like Sydney serve as major transportation hubs. They offer fantastic cultural activities and a wide range of world-class hotels and culinary choices. The Outback, complete with its arid climate and large varieties of dangerous wildlife, is more suited to adventurous travelers. However, incredible hiking opportunities and scenic views await those willing to step around the snakes.

2

Mongolia

A road in the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia
Credit: jaume/ Shutterstock

Mongolia has a total area of 603,908 square miles and a population of 3,103,428, giving the country a population density of just five people per square mile. Mongolia ranks in the top 20 countries in the world by area (it's just a little smaller than Alaska), but it ranks #135 in terms of population. You can get even more privacy here than you can in Australia. It’s a little more crowded in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but the rest of the population is evenly dispersed across the country. You also have to factor in the relatively uninhabited Gobi Desert, which Mongolia shares with China.

All of that space means better opportunities for remote trekking and horseback riding. The country is actually home to more horses than people. In fact, the Mongolian horse is a large part of the culture and an emblem of national pride. The country’s semi-nomadic peoples breed horses as well as cattle, camels, sheep, and goats for a living, and horse racing is also a favorite pastime. These animals are well-suited to the harsh Mongolian climate and are used for both traveling and hunting.

1

Greenland

Colorful houses on the coast
Credit: Olga Gavrilova/ Shutterstock

Greenland has a total area of 836,330 square miles and a population of 57,691. The country averages a population density of 0.1 people per square mile. Yes, you read that correctly.

We could make a list of towns in Connecticut that each has more people than the entire country of Greenland, but we'd be here all day. Despite its namesake, this vast landmass (the 13th largest in the world) is more white than green: more than three-fourths of it is covered in ice. This is the least densely populated country in the world, and its people mainly reside along the coastline, while the ice-covered interior remains completely uninhabited.

Most people don't think of including Greenland in their travel plans, but you should. You can fly there from Copenhagen on, you guessed it, Air Greenland. There are also flights from Reykjavik, Iceland. It's a unique destination and is perfect for those who love winter wonderlands. Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor adventures await you on the world’s largest island. Visit the country’s western coast to explore the small towns of Nuuk, Ilulissat, and Qaqortoq.

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