A 150-mile (240 km) stretch of water separating the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego from a series of smaller islands, the Beagle Channel has a long, turbulent history and an equally dramatic visual impact upon those who visit.
A trip here allows you to learn more about the pioneering explorers of the waters around the very south of Patagonia, as well as appreciate the impressive landscape of mountains and glaciers that line this historic channel.
History of the Beagle Channel
Named after the initial voyage of the HMS Beagle, which sailed in the 1820s under the captaincy of Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle Channel made quite the impression upon a famous passenger of the ship’s second visit to the region: Charles Darwin.
In 1883, he described the spectacular scenery as he sailed through its calm waters:
As we proceeded along the Beagle Channel, the scenery assumed a peculiar and very magnificent character[…] The mountains were here about three thousand feet high, and terminated in sharp and jagged points. They rose in one unbroken sweep from the water’s edge, and were covered to the height of fourteen or fifteen hundred feet by the dusky-coloured forest.
Source: The Voyage of the Beagle
Despite the tranquil picture that Darwin paints, in the centuries after, the Beagle Channel would see its fair share of traffic and controversy. As one of three navigable passages around South America between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it became a main route for global trade, while between the 1950s until 1984, the Beagle Channel was at the center of a long-running territorial conflict between Chile and Argentina.
Nowadays, it’s a favored route for cruise ships sailing towards Ushuaia and Antarctica, as passengers are drawn to explore the dramatic and unchanged landscapes that Darwin so vividly described.
How to visit the Beagle Channel
Extensive, hardy fauna – which no doubt inspired Darwin, the gunmetal grey of the waters and its hanging, tidewater glaciers are just some of the star attractions when sailing along the Beagle Channel.
Short boat tours
Most tourists visit the Beagle Channel with a half-day boat tour from Ushuaia, the Argentine port city located on the northern shore of the waterway.
These tours include a visit to the iconic Les Eclaireurs lighthouse and weave through the small islands that line the channel to look for sea lions and other sea birds. From onboard, it’s also possible to appreciate the panoramic vista of Ushuaia and the jagged mountain peaks and subAntarctic forest of Tierra del Fuego National Park, located along the eastern shoreline of the Beagle Channel.
In addition, some short boat tours have excursions to Martillo Island, home to a rookery of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.
Longer cruise ship tours
If you have a longer time period for visiting this historic channel, a cruise ship tour offers a far more unique experience than the more popular half-day trips. While thousands of visitors annually explore the small stretch of the Beagle Channel directly south of Ushuaia, far fewer venture west into the Chilean section of waters.
Those that do sail through the magical environment of glaciers and forested land that bewitched Darwin centuries ago. The most impressive include:
Glacier Alley is a short stretch of the Beagle Channel lined by various tidewater glaciers, most of which are named after European countries.
These shoreline glaciers pour down from the Darwin Ice Sheet and Darwin Mountains that line the horizon and can only be viewed from a cruise ship.
A short distance further west along the silent waters of Chilean fjords, a detour into Pia Fjord brings you out at Pia Glacier – another of Patagonia’s most magnificent attractions. It’s possible to get close to the glacier with a trekking excursion ashore.
But even without disembarking from the ship, it’s possible to watch as chunks of ice from the glacier spill into the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel – a unique and spectacular sight.