Though not as popular as the Andean highlands or Torres Del Paine National Park, the Chilean fjords are simply marvelous. In fact, many visitors consider this “edge of the world” location at the southern tip of Patagonia to be one of the most underrated places on the continent. One visit to the area and you’ll quickly understand why.
Here, the Andes Mountains rise dramatically from icy waters; icebergs float along in the shape of a camel, an elephant or a bear; and glaciers as tall as the New York City skyline crash into the sea as they calve. Due to its remoteness and occasionally extreme weather conditions, many might imagine these fjords to be a barren, desolate destination. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Wildlife is abundant here, with whales piercing the surface for air between dives for meals, seals barking on the rock outcroppings, bird swooping and swirling around the ships, and vast colonies of penguins lining many of the beaches. A trip to the Chilean fjords isn’t just a visit, but a journey into one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.
The History of Cape Horn Located on Isla Hornos, Cape Horn is the southernmost point in continental South America. The terrain on the island has no trees and can be incredibly harsh, especially in the winter months, when winds can be extremely forceful and destructive. But it remains home to a vast array of sea birds, including a number of species of gulls, and boasts a surprising diversity of vegetation. Cape Horn is extremely important historically. In 1615 the Dutch decided to search for a new route west, because the Strait of Magdalena was extremely narrow. The Eendracht successfully made the discovery of Cape Horn and swiftly named the point after its companion, the Kaap Hoorn. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, the vast majority of ships “rounded Cape Horn,” because it was the fastest way to get from Europe or the east side of the Americas to the west coast of the Americas. In April 1832, Charles Darwin made a voyage to Cape Horn. His journey was undertaken aboard a ship called the H.M.S. Beagle, for which the channel in Southern Patagonia would later be named. Of course, if it had not been for the rounding of Cape Horn by Darwin, his great discoveries at the Galapagos Islands later on “The Voyage of the Beagle” would have never happened.
The Glaciers of Patagonia
Some of Patagonia’s most striking features are its incredible glaciers, most of which end up tumbling into a body of water at their terminus. Glaciers are formed when snow gathers, gradually becoming heavier and heavier. This weight compresses the snowfall into ice, which accumulates in flat or bowl-shaped areas. Eventually, this accumulation becomes so heavy that the ice is squeezed out of the bottom and middle, moving into valleys and down slopes. During the heat of summer, glaciers tend to melt, causing a “retreat” in the ice. Then, in the winter, as snow accumulates, they press out into the valleys once again. Over time, this grinding of earth can carve out entire valleys. Most glaciers in the world are retreating (thanks in part to global warming), meaning that each year they shrink a little. The amazing thing about Patagonia, however, is that many of the glaciers here are still growing and expanding. Unlike the ice you put in your favorite beverage, glacial ice does not float, because it is void of air. So, if you were to drop a bit of glacial ice into your drink, it would fall to the bottom, just like a rock. Some of this ice has been in a frozen state for tens of thousands of years.
Glaciers in the Chilean Fjords
There are hundreds of these impressive glaciers in the southern Patagonian region, and many in the Chilean Fjords are fairly accessible. One of the most popular is called Pia Glacier, which is only accessible by boat. Zodiaks transport guests from expedition ships to the beach nearby, where they can watch the massive glaciers calve into the sea. A short hike to a lookout point provides exceptional views stretching from the mountains down to the sea. Flowing down from another mountain, Garibaldi Glacier is as impressive as the come. Not only is there a tranquil forest and a beautiful glacial waterfall here, but you can also get spectacular views of the Darwin Range of mountains rising out of the fjords. Though less accessible, the Piloto Glacier is a favorite among photographers for its stunning blue color, caused by a combination of age and compression. And while Aguila Glacier is the closest to Punta Arenas, it’s also one of the more interestingly-shaped glaciers in the region, looking as if it’s covering rolling hills rather than mountains. It makes for a stunning stop when exploring one of the world’s most remote and remarkable landscapes.
How to Cruise the Chilean Fjords Ready to explore Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords? There’s a comprehensive cruise in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer behind Brendan’s Adventures. His work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian. Photos: Claudio Vidal & Enrique Couve