Cape Horn, the headland situated at 55°58′ south and 67°16′ west at the very end of South America, is perhaps best summed up by the old maritime adage: “Below 40 degrees latitude, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God.” For those who sailed through the seas to “round the horn”, this act saw them putting their life into the hands of the greatest force on earth: nature. But to understand what led sailors to risk this journey at the very ends of the earth, it’s necessary to understand the history of the region. Read on for a brief outline of the landmark’s significance through the centuries, as well as a Cape Horn map and a guide to how it is possible to safely visit this fascinating place.
Cape Horn: a potted history
1520-1616: Before Cape Horn was first sailed, all cargo ships between Europe and the East Indies were required to pass through the Straits of Magellan or around the Cape of Good Hope, both of which were monopolized by the Dutch East India Company.
January 29, 1616: Cape Horn was discovered by a Dutch vessel, the Eendracht (Unity), that was commanded by Willem Cornelis Schouten and his brother and financed by merchant Isaac Le Maire. Cape Horn would go on to play an important part in history.
1616-1914: Boats could now sail around Cape Horn, a faster and more favorable route than passing through the Straits of Magellan, where unpredictable currents and strong winds posed a significant problem for ships.
Vessels transporting precious cargos of gold and grain, as well as passengers traveling from one coast to another in the United States, now rounded the horn.
1600s-1900s: However, the passage around Cape Horn was itself extremely hazardous. As such, from the 15th-century to the 20th, an estimated 10,000 seamen were lost in shipwrecks caused by gale force winds. The act of “rounding the horn” soon became a legendary feat in maritime circles.
1914- present day: The Panama Canal is completed, sounding the death knell for the waters around Cape Horn as a global shipping route.
Nowadays, the oceans surrounding the cape have instead become the thoroughfare for cruise ships bringing intrepid adventurers to stand upon the tip of Hornos Island and stare out at the unforgiving waters of the Drake Passage below.
The location of the island: Cape Horn map
As the Cape Horn map indicates, this landmark is south of mainland Patagonia, located on Hornos Island, one of the Hermite Islands that are part of Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego.
The easiest way of visiting Cape Horn is with a cruise that departs from either Ushuaia, the southernmost city of South America on the Argentine side of Patagonia, or Punta Arenas, a port city located 390-miles (629km) further north on the Chilean side.
From Ushuaia, cruise ship tours cross the Beagle Channel overnight before passing into the Murray Channel and Nassau Bay and entering the waters of this remote archipelago.
Learn more about cruises from Ushuaia to Cape Horn.
From Punta Arenas, expedition cruise ships pass through the remote, mysterious wonderland of the Chilean fjords, past tidewater glaciers dripping into the Beagle Channel before following a similar route as those from Ushuaia through the Murray Channel and Nassau Bay, this time over a period of four days. These cruises offer the greatest way of understanding the remote, inhospitable nature of Cape Horn and its surrounding waters.
Learn more about cruises from Punta Arenas to Cape Horn.