Portuguese Navigator Ferdinand Magellan was serving the Spanish when he set off with 5 ships to reach the Spice Islands of Indonesia via South America. The expedition voyage started in Valladolid Spain on March 22, 1518. The 5 ships sail and departed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on Sept 20, 1519. The vessels were named La Trinidad, La San Antonio, La Concepción, La Victoria and La Santiago. The ships entered the strait on Nov 1, 1520. The strait was originally named Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints). Other alternative names were Patagonian Strait and Victoria Strait. Since 1527, it was called Estrecho de Magallanes.
Magellan discovered the tortuous channel but he died later in the voyage and only one ship, La Victoria, survived the journey back home with 18 of the original 270 crew via the Cape of Good Hope to Spain. Occurred in 1520, it was the first European led expedition to circumnavigate the globe.
This cinematic channel, earned the nickname Dragon’s Tail among sailors for its tortuous path, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and cuts between the mainland tip of South America and Tierra del Fuego Island. All 560 kilometers in length and up to 32 kilometers in width, it was the passage of choice for seafaring transport between these two oceans until the Panama Canal shortened the distance by 8 thousand miles in 1914.
The Strait, in it whole length, belongs to the Republic of Chile and it is part of the XII Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica (Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena). Its eastern access is surrounded by Argentinean waters. The strait’s northwest part is similar to the Alaska’s Inside Passage. The strait’s western part goes northwest from Magdalena Channel’s northern end to the Pacific Ocean. Along with the Beagle Channel, it was one of two protected channels for sailing between the oceans. The third alternative was the notoriously turbulent open ocean Drake Passage beyond Cape Horn. All the shipping traffic between mainland Chile and Argentina runs through the Magellan Strait. Under the 1984’s Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Argentina and Chile, marine vessels including cruise ships of other nations are allowed to navigate these waters from and to the eastern mouth at any time and circumstances.
Today approximately 1,500 ships pass through the Strait of Magellan each year and around 50 Magellan tour cruise ships arrive each summer. When sailing into the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica Region of South America on a cruise ship, it is hard to contemplate how it all must have seemed to the early explorers who crossed the Atlantic to reach the distant continent, but thankfully, much of the landscape remains virtually unchanged. From remote Cape Horn to Wulaia Bay, a cruise is almost the only way to see this area of breathtaking beauty. One of the absolute highlights is landing at Cape Horn, where at its southernmost tip Antarctica lies just 600 miles away.
The starting point for those wanting to experience a Strait of Magellan cruise is the town of Punta Arenas. Situated in southern Chile, it is an unlikely mixture of faded European gilded-age splendor, wild-western U.S. Frontier town, immigrant melting pot, and modern-day adventure expedition kick-off point. The town was once a mandatory stop-off point for ships traveling to and from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, ships docked to load and unload cargo and passengers, and the town prospered. It is Chile’s southernmost city and is the largest settlement along the Strait of Magellan. Even nowadays, it serves as the center for tourism and cruises in the region.
The fjords and channels throughout the Strait of Magellan are known for their natural beauty and calm waters. Along the route, high glaciers flow to the sea from steep snow-capped peaks. Protected bays are populated with elephant seals, Humpback whales, and Magellanic penguins. It also boasts a wide variety of wildlife including penguins, whales, seals, dolphins and abundance of birdlife that still remains off the main tourist track.
There are 41 listed lighthouses in this waterway, some of which are over 100 years old and declared national monuments. Among those are County of Peebles, an iron-hulled rig ship, now used as a breakwater for the Punta Arenas’ harbor, San Isidro museum and Evangelistas at the strait’s western mouth. Around the strait are located several Chilean national parks and monuments, including Los Pinguinos National Monument and a sanctuary for protecting humpback whales. Southern right whales are also known to frequent the strait’s waters. There also several other park areas that are protected such as; Cabo Possession, Cabo Espíritu Santo, San Gregorio, Estepa Humeda, San Juan, Río Condor, Timaukel, Dawson Island, Cabo Froward, Munoz Gamero peninsula, Carlos III Island, and Rupert Island.
Many lines including Seabourn, Silversea Expeditions, National Geographic and Lindblad call in at Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego, either on a South America cruise or more often en route to Antarctica. But there is just one that operates expedition cruises also known as Chilean fjord cruises in this region: Australis. This Chile-based line has two ships specially designed to navigate the narrow fjords and shallow bays in this region. Australis offers in-depth explorations of the region, with highly knowledgeable guides on every cruise. The ships all carry Zodiacs to get up close and personal to wildlife and glaciers, and allowing passengers to board at the tiny ports.
The best time to cruise the Strait of Magellan throughout the Chilean fjords is September through April; the rest of the time the area is un-navigable, due to weather and sea conditions. However, the weather varies at any time of year and it is advisable to take cold weather clothes at any time. In January/February, the height of summer, the weather is most clement and seas are calmest. Being so far south, the phrase “height of summer” might be slightly misleading, temperatures rarely go above the high 60s (low 20s centigrade) at any time of year.
The southernmost town in Chile is a dusty, wind-swept place that seems bleached out and abandoned. It has a real frontier feel to it. Most passengers fly here from Santiago in the morning and board the ship in the afternoon.
This is a beautiful, unspoiled island, which houses a pristine, sub-polar forest: one of the few places in the world with this type of habitat. It’s a bit like stepping back in time: The trees are covered in moss and the wooden path past streams, peat bogs and waterfalls, expect a brachiosaurus to come lumbering past at any moment. The island is home to large number birds and also a colony of Southern elephant seals. The most striking sight is the Marinelli Glacier in the distance, which acts as a backdrop, shimmering in the distance.
These islands are home to 4,000 small Magellan penguins, reached via Zodiac boat ride, but it’s not allowed off to explore. Other marine birds including a cormorant colony, geese, skuas and gulls are also easy to spot on here.
This is a wonderful cruise highlight, if the time is right, passengers will be able to catch the glacier calving (chunks falling off). The best time to come to watch this is high summer, when it’s warmest and the glaciers are melting. There is a chance to take a walk or a hike along a path through forests and brush to a vantage point that allows to uninterrupted views of the whole glacier.
Another beautiful bay, most famous for an 1859 uprising led by an indigenous Yamana man, Jemmy Button, who was captured by Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle, taken to England, “civilized” there and then returned. A museum in the old radio station has an extensive and detailed history of the Yamana.
The southernmost inhabited point in South America. The highlights are a monument to the many people who have lost their lives in the Drake Passage, and the spot where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. There is a permanent manned lighthouse, run by a senior officer in the Chilean naval fleet. Passengers can visit the lighthouse and the chapel and get a souvenir, however, the captain will make a decision based on how rough the sea is that day; landings are made on only about three-quarters of all voyages.
Ushuaia: Ushuaia, the final, or first, port stop depending on the itinerary, is Argentina’s most southerly town and stands in stark contrast to Punta Arenas: bustling and prosperous, its set against a stunning background of mountains, and strung along the pristine waters of the Beagle Channel. This is a town that has grown rich on tourist dollars and is the main stopping-off point for cruises to Antarctica. It has a thriving main street, mainly consisting of expensive outdoor clothes and hiking boot specialists. Sites worth checking out include the former prison and a nearby penguin colony.