The Strait of Magellan: Everything You Need to Know

Where is the Strait of Magellan? The Strait of Magellan (also called the Straits of Magellan or Estrecho de Magallanes) is an important, natural sea channel linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between the southern tip of South America and Tierra del Fuego island. It lies almost entirely within Chilean territorial waters. Strait of Magellan Map:  What is the Strait of Magellan? The Strait of Magellan is a curvy navigable channel that is about 350 miles long and 2-20 miles wide at its narrowest and widest points. The fjords and channels are celebrated for their natural beauty of glacial and mountainous scenery, with the strait often being compared to Alaska’s Inside Passage. It is also home to several islands.

Its major port is Punta Arenas, located on the Brunswick Peninsula in southern Chile. The strait is known to have unpredictable weather, especially sudden changes of wind disrupting sea conditions and traveling ships. Who discovered the Strait of Magellan? The Strait of Magellan is named after Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to navigate the Strait in 1520. Magellan was a Portuguese navigator who was sailing under a Spanish flag in an attempt to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands (the Maluku Islands). The lands north of the Strait were named “Land of the Patagones” (Patagonia) and those to the south were named “Land of Smoke” (Tierra del Fuego).

Magellan’s passage through the strait was not easy, due to its complexity (with many fjords and dead ends) and foggy climate. His fleet took thirty eight days to complete the passage. Though Magellan was killed in the Philippines several months later, one of his captains finished their expedition, thus completing the first global circumnavigation. Why is the Strait of Magellan important? Despite its tricky passageways and cold climate, the Strait of Magellan was an important route for steam and sailing ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, up until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, which shortened that passage by thousands of miles. The strait was considered a safer route than the often rough Drake Passage, separating Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) from Antarctica.

Why Visit the Strait of Magellan?  The Strait of Magellan’s importance as an international sailing route declined after the creation of the Panama Canal. Today, approximately 1,500 ships pass through the strait each year. Ships rounding South America from the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans continue to travel through the strait. It offers an inland passage protected from major ocean storms. However, the strait’s major revival has come through tourism.

Comfortable Strait of Magellan cruise now allow travelers to experience the strait’s natural beauty, wildlife, and stillness. Each year, about 50 cruises pass through the strait. These multi-day cruises make stops at scenic islands, glaciers, waterfalls, and forests.  Visitors can observe elephant seals, Humpback whales, and Magellanic penguins.

On the Chilean side of the strait, Punta Arenas is a major departure point for visitors headed to Torres Del Paine National Park or to Antarctica by air. In southern Argentina, the major port is Ushuaia, which also serves as the embarkation point for cruises to Antarctica.

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