Patagonia…Ushuaia, the Beagle Channel, Punta Arenas, the Straights of Magellan and the Chilean Fiords



            Missing the visit to Port Stanley was a disappointment, but we did not realize what lay ahead for our eyes and our senses.   Cruising south down along the coast of Argentina, the ship headed for Horn Island, the southernmost point on the island known as Cape Horn.   It is unique both from the fact that it is where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet and as a result the waters there can be quite vicious.  The Drake Passage, the body of water south of Cape Horn heading to Antarctica is known for heavy seas and a brutal passage for seagoing sailors.

            Surprisingly, the waters were relatively quiet as we reached Cape Horn and sailed into the Pacific Ocean.   After some picture taking, the ship turned around and we sailed back into the Atlantic Ocean and then entered the Beagle Channel.  The Beagle Channel is notable for many reasons…the first is that it was the inland waterway that would short circuit ships away from the strong waters off of Cape Horn.  It also was the route that the British ship, the Beagle, hence the name, traveled with the great naturalist, Charles Darwin when it was searching for a shorter route to the Pacific Ocean.  

Probably, most significantly is the fact that Charles Darwin collected his many samples of human life that enabled him to publish his famous study on the evolution of man…a scientific work that stands today as important and profound as it was when he first wrote about his findings. 

Sailing through the Beagle Channel we reached Ushuaia, Argentina the most southern city in this hemisphere.  Originally a penal colony, today it is the jumping off point for most expeditions heading to Antarctica and it was so for us when we left on that trip four years ago.   It is a town of about 50,000 people where tourism is the major source of revenue for their economy, supplemented by some logging and fishing. 

It is a simple town…certainly not a wealthy town, where the average income is about three hundred dollars monthly.   The population is relatively young as great numbers of people have moved to this area within the last twenty years …a move that was encouraged by a government subsidy.   Ushuaia is located on an island that also includes the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which we visited via a trip on a small gauge train.  


Cape Horn

Tierra Del Fuego National Park


Tierra del Fuego is the name given to the entire region, a name that translates to “Land of Fire”.  It was given that name by the early explorers who when visiting the area saw fires that the Indians and natives kept burning to keep warm.   It is reported that these Indians wore no clothing, only seal grease on their skin to give them warmth.   The terrible odor emanating from these natives was understandable, but it led the settlers to believe that these natives were “savages” and had no ability to care for themselves. 

Leaving Ushuaia we continued cruising on the Beagle Channel into Chilean waters and past the snow covered Darwin Mountains.  This narrow passage is known as “glacier alley”, as the transit provides a most spectacular view of at least six glorious glaciers each named for a European country.     Glaciers falling from heights of more that one thousand feet to the water edge below drew our breadth away as we watched from our balcony just hundreds of feet away.   The blue ice, the result of millions of years of growth tantalized our sights and our senses.  


Glacier Alley in the Beagle Channel

Map of Tierra del Fuego


A comment about the weather…since arriving in the area near Cape Horn, the temperature has been near 40oF, but the wind created a chill factor that made you feel quite a bit colder.   Walking in and around Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, we were buffeted by heavy winds which are quite normal for the area.   For example, in Punta Arenas the temperature averages 33oF in winter and 55oF in summer…not too bad until you factor in the wind.

Punta Arenas our first port visit in Chile, was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.  It appeared a bit more prosperous than Ushuaia, but it also has a population of about 140,000, much greater than that of Ushuaia.   There were many small stores located in the streets around a very nice town square with a huge statue of Ferdinand Magellan.  We visited the local cemetery…a must in these towns, a museum, a house that was owned by a wealthy family some one hundred years ago and certainly the town square.    

An interesting aspect of our visit to Punta Arenas was that from the city we could see the southern end of the South American mainland.    I know that I told you about Cape Horn as the southern tip of the hemisphere and that Ushuaia was the southern most city in the southern hemisphere and that is still true....but that area is a series of many islands and not a part of the mainland.   The region that is known as Patagonia extends further north, beyond Tierra del Fuego up to and north of Punta Arenas.   We continued our cruising through the Straights of Magellan to the Pacific Ocean and then north into the Chilean fiords.  

The west coast of Chile is lined with many islands capped with snow covered mountains that reach up thousands of feet from the waters edge….a dramatic sight.  As we cruised among these islands, ….islands that were carved by glaciers that to this day cut through the mountains and meet the waters below, …it seemed that we could almost reach out and touch the cliffs on both sides of the ship.   The weather may have been overcast and rainy, but it could not diminish the raw beauty or the majesty of this magnificent design of nature.  

            The ship continued cruising north beyond what is known as Patagonia from the fiords into the Pacific Ocean as we transited to Puerto Montt, our next and last port of call.  After leaving Puerto Montt we cruised in the Pacific Ocean to Valparaiso before disembarking for our trip to Santiago, Chile.


Punta Arenas Chilean Fiord Glacier