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The History of the Strait of Magellan and What to See There

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Named after the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who was the first European explorer to sail through these waters, the Strait of Magellan is a historic, 350-mile (564km) passage that separates the southernmost end of the Americas and Tierra del Fuego.

History of the Strait of Magellan

Discovery of the Strait of Magellan

Although European cartographers were aware of the presence of the Strait of Magellan from the start of the 16th century, it wasn’t until November 1, 1520 when Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet of ships sailed through these waters. Initially named Estrecho de Todos Los Santos (Strait of All Saints) to reflect the date of discovery (All Saints’ Day), it soon became named after Magellan himself.

This initial voyage along the Strait took thirty-eight days, as the vessels spent much of the time searching for a route through the confusing network of channels, islets and fjords that make up the waterway.

strait of magellanLater visitors to the Strait of Magellan include the English captain and privateer, Sir Francis Drake in 1578 and the British survey vessel, the HMS Adventurer. The latter, commanded by Phillip Parker King, spent five years between 1826 and 1830 exploring the Strait and helped to produce the first charts of the region.

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Historic use and sovereignty

As it allows for a shorter and more sheltered route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans than rounding Cape Horn, the Strait of Magellan has been used by commercial liners, however, traffic on both stretches of water has declined significantly since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

Although the sovereignty of the Strait of Magellan has historically been contested, since the Boundary Treaty of 1881, the waters officially lie within Chilean territory.

Early colonization of the Strait of Magellan and modern settlement

In 1584, the first Spanish colony was established on the northern edge of the Strait by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. “Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe” was founded in December of 1584 with 300 settlers; however, as a result of the freezing, harsh conditions that they were forced to endure, most died of starving or the cold. This settlement became known as “Port Famine” or “Puerto Del Hambre”.

strait of magellanToday, Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city is the largest settlement along the Strait of Magellan and acts as the main focal point for tourism and cruises in the region.

Where to visit along the Strait of Magellan

From Punta Arenas, the Strait of Magellan offers numerous possibilities for tourists in the region:

  • Visit the penguin colonies at Tucker Islets, Magdalena Island or Bahía Inútil

The Strait of Magellan comprises multiple colonies of Magellanic penguins, with Magdalena Island one of the easiest to reach. Visit with a guided tour or consider taking a cruise from Punta Arenas to see some of the area’s other top highlights, including Tucker Islets.

strait of magellanAt Bahía Inútil, you can also spend an hour watching the only king penguin colony in the Americas at Parque Pinguino Rey. Again, this can be reached via a tour from Punta Arenas or with an expedition cruise.

  • Drive to the end of the road and hike to Cabo Froward

If you want to stand at the southernmost point of the Americas, then look no further than Cabo Froward. Although it’s a mere 56-miles (90km) from Punta Arenas, the final stretch is only accessible by foot and takes at least two days to hike.

Upon reaching Cabo Froward, intrepid adventurers can stand beneath the huge cross that was erected in 1913 and stare out across the Strait of Magellan and the islands at the end of the world beyond – a view that is more than worth the challenges of the hike!

  • Explore the Chilean fjords and the Strait of Magellan with an adventure cruise

The best way to explore the Strait of Magellan is – you’ve guessed it – by ship. Follow in the footsteps of Magellan, Drake and even Charles Darwin as you visit some of the most hidden recesses of these waters and even venture further south to Cape Horn.

For more inspiration, read these articles about what you can expect to see on a cruise from Punta Arenas and how to plan a unique cruise along the Strait of Magellan.


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