Before the Panama Canal, there was the Strait of Magellan. This cinematic channel linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans cuts between the mainland tip of South America and Tierra del Fuego island. It was the passage of choice for seafaring transport between these two oceans until the Panama Canal shortened the distance by thousands of miles in 1914.
The first European to traverse its waters, all 560 kilometers (350 miles) in length and up to 32 kilometers (20 miles) in width of them, was Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, who did so in 1520 in the name of Spanish exploration. Magellan surely sailed mouth agape at the impressive glacial and mountainous scenery, the undiscovered colonies of Magellanic penguins, pods of humpback whales and schools of Commerson’s and Peale’s dolphins — all surely as equally agog with the presence of man in this Patagonian paradise. With photogenic Punta Arenas as its main port, the Strait of Magellan is a bucket-list voyage for intrepid adventurers the world over.
As you near the southern tip of South America, traveling along the Chilean or Pacific coast, you’ll know that you’re approaching the Cockburn (pronounced "CO-burn") Channel when you see the twin rocks that guard its entrance. The channel flows between the Brecknock Peninsula (the westernmost edge of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego) and a number of islands, including Clarence Island with its irregular coastline of dramatic sounds that reach deep into its interior. The channel is part of the route that connects the Strait of Magellan to the Beagle Channel, while along both sides of the waterway is one of the crown jewels of Chile’s network of parks: Alberto de Agostini National Park.
The Cockburn Channel shares the same entrance to the Pacific as the Bárbara Channel. Because of its proximity to the open sea, you may experience some ocean swells as your ship navigates its length. The coastline here is rich in fjords and glaciers. The Pia Fjord is especially beautiful, as dozens of waterfalls cascade down the slopes into its waters. If you watch long enough, you may see huge chunks of ice calve off Pia Glacier and fall into the sea.
Running through the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the Beagle Channel is a scenic and wonderfully calm strait that has become a hugely popular cruise destination. Named in 1830 after a charting voyage by the HMS Beagle — the ship that later became famous for carrying English naturalist Charles Darwin on his five-year journey of discovery — the channel is one of a trio of navigable passages around the tip of South America. Some 240 kilometers long (almost 150 miles), the channel extends from Nueva Island in the east to Darwin Sound and Cook Bay in the west. Its western end lies within Chile, and its eastern end forms a segment of the border between Chile and Argentina. By far the largest sight along the channel is the town of Ushuaia in Argentina, which has much to offer the day-tripper or overnight visitor. Other highlights of a cruise include a slew of natural sights, from views of snow-covered glaciers to wildlife spotting at Isla de los Lobos (also called Sea Lion Island) and Isla de los Pájaros (Bird Island).