Tierra del Fuego: Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel (Argentina, Chile)

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Tierra del Fuego: Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel (Argentina, Chile)

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 11:24

The Strait of Magellan is a sea route in southern Chile separating mainland South America and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago to the south. Tierra del Fuego, shared by Chile and Argentina, is further divided in the south by the east-west Beagle Channel.

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago across the Strait of Magellan at the southernmost tip of the South American mainland. The archipelago consists of the main island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, and many smaller islands, including the Cape Horn and Diego Ramírez Islands.

Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, with Argentina controlling the eastern half of the main island and Chile holding the western half plus the islands south of the Beagle Channel.

The navigator Ferdinand Magellan discovered the archipelago in 1520 when he sailed through the strait named after him and called the region Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire).

For 350 years after Magellan's voyage, the region was left in the undisputed occupation of its indigenous peoples: the Ona, Yahgan, and Alacaluf Indians.

The 1880 colonization by Chilean and Argentine nationals was sparked by the introduction of sheep farming and the discovery of gold. The discovery of petroleum at Manantiales in 1945 converted the northern part of Tierra del Fuego into Chile's only oil field.

Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego

The archipelago consists of the main island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, often called simply Tierra del Fuego or Isla Grande, with an area of 48,100 sq km (18,572 sq mi), and a group of smaller islands. The main island is split between two countries: 61.43% of the total area belongs to Chile, while 38.57% belongs to Argentina.

The archipelago is divided by an east-west channel, the Beagle Channel, immediately south of the main island. The largest islands south of the Beagle Channel are Hoste and Navarino.

The western part of the main island, and almost all the other islands, belong to Chile. They are part of the Magallanes y Antártica Chilena Region, the capital and chief town of Punta Arenas, situated on the mainland across the strait.

The most significant Chilean towns are Porvenir, the capital of the Chilean Province of Tierra del Fuego, located on the main island, and Navarino Island, Puerto Williams, the capital of the Antártica Chilena Province.

Puerto Toro lies a few kilometers south of Puerto Williams and is arguably the southernmost village in the world. The mostly uninhabited islands north and west of the main island are part of the Magallanes Province.

Map of the southern tip of South America / Tierra del Fuego

Map of the southern tip of South America / Tierra del Fuego

The eastern part of the main island and a few small islands in the Beagle Channel belong to Argentina. They are part of the Tierra del Fuego, Antarctic Territory and South Atlantic Islands Province, whose capital is Ushuaia, the archipelago's largest city. The other important town in the region is Río Grande on the Atlantic coast.

Cordillera Darwin

The Cordillera Darwin, located within the Patagonian Andes in the southwestern part of the main island, contains many glaciers that reach the ocean. Mount Darwin is the highest peak at 2,488 m (8,163 ft).

The topography in the Cordillera Darwin can be divided into four regions:

  1. Western Cordillera: This region is the range's most rugged and glaciated part. Steep peaks, deep valleys, and glaciers characterize it.

  2. Eastern Cordillera: This region is less rugged than the Western Cordillera but still a high-altitude region. Rolling hills, forests, and lakes characterize it.

  3. Darwin Massif: This region is the highest part of the range. It is home to Mount Fitz Roy and Mount Darwin, the two tallest peaks in the range.

  4. Southern Patagonian Ice Field: This ice field covers much of the southern part of the range. It is the largest ice field in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica.


This region has a subpolar oceanic climate with short, cool summers and long, wet, moderately mild winters: the precipitation averages 3,000 mm (118 in) a year in the far west, but precipitation decreases rapidly to the eastern side.

Temperatures are steady throughout the year: in Ushuaia, they hardly surpass 9 °C (48 °F) in summers and average 0 °C (32 °F) in winters. Snowfall can occur in summer.

The cold and wet summers help preserve the ancient glaciers. The southernmost islands possess a sub-antarctic climate typical of tundra that makes the growth of trees impossible. Some areas in the interior have a polar environment.


Approximately 30% of the Tierra del Fuego islands have forests classified as Magellanic subpolar. The northeast is made up of steppe and cool semi-desert.

Six species of trees are found in Tierra del Fuego:

  1. Drimys winteri, also known as winter's bark or canelo, is a deciduous tree growing up to 30 meters tall. It has a thick, twisted trunk and fragrant bark.

  2. Maytenus magellanica, or matico, is a small evergreen tree that can grow up to 10 meters tall. It has dark green leaves and yellow flowers.

  3. Pilgerodendron uviferum, also known as lenga, is the southernmost conifer in the world. It can grow up to 40 meters tall and has thick, twisted trunks.

  4. Nothofagus antarctica, also known as Antarctic beech, is a deciduous tree growing up to 20 meters tall. It has small, dark green leaves.

  5. Nothofagus pumilio, also known as lenga dwarf beech, is a deciduous tree that can grow up to 10 meters tall. It has small, dark green leaves.

  6. Nothofagus betuloides, also known as coigue, is an evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 meters tall. It has large, leathery leaves.

Several kinds of fruit grow in open spaces in these forests, such as beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis var. chiloensis forma chiloensis) and calafate (Berberis buxifolia), which have long been gathered by both Native Americans and residents of European descent. They are the only forests in the world to have developed in a climate with such cold summers.

Tree cover extends very close to the southernmost tip of South America. Winds are so strong that trees in wind-exposed areas grow into twisted shapes, inspiring people to call them "flag trees."

Tree vegetation extends south of the Isla de Los Estados, Navarino Island, and the northern part of Hoste Island. Dwarf Nothofagus communities are found at altitudes above 500 m (1,640 ft). Going farther south, the Wollaston Islands and the southern part of Hoste Island are covered by sub-antarctic tundra.

Among the most notable animals in the archipelago are austral parakeets, seagulls, guanacos, foxes, kingfishers, condors, king penguins, owls, and fire crown hummingbirds.

North American beavers, introduced during the 1940s, have proliferated and caused considerable damage to the island's forests. As a result, the governments have established a wide-reaching program to trap and kill beavers in Tierra del Fuego.

Like the mainland of Chile and Argentina to the north, this archipelago boasts some of the finest trout fishing in the world. Sea-run brown trout often exceed 9 kg (20 lb), particularly in rivers such as the Rio Grande, the San Pablo, and the Lago Fagnano. Much of this water is privately owned, with catch-and-release and fly fishing only.

Waters adjacent to Tierra del Fuego are very rich in cetacean diversity. Sightings of southern right whales in Tierra del Fuego have increased in recent years, as well as humpbacks and some others, such as blue whales, southern fins, southern seals, and southern minke whales.

Aquatic mammals (Pinnipedia) inhabiting these areas include South American sea lions, South American fur seals, carnivorous leopard seals (seal-eating seals), and gigantic southern elephant seals.

Today, the main economic activities of the archipelago are fishing, natural gas and oil extraction, sheep farming, and ecotourism. Tourism is gaining importance and becoming increasingly important. Energy production is a crucial economic activity.

On the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, during the 2005 to 2010 period, petroleum and natural gas extraction contributed 20% of the region's economic output.

Tierra del Fuego Map

Map illustrating the Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego

Strait of Magellan

The Strait of Magellan, also called the Straits of Magellan, is a navigable sea route in southern Chile, separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. The strait is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The route is considered challenging to navigate due to frequent narrows and unpredictable winds and currents. As a result, maritime piloting is now compulsory.

The strait is shorter and more sheltered than the Drake Passage, the often stormy open sea route around Cape Horn.

Along with the narrow and sometimes treacherous Beagle Channel and the seasonal and historically treacherous North West Passage, these were the only sea routes between the Atlantic and Pacific until the construction of the Panama Canal.

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel is a strait in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on the extreme southern tip of South America between Chile and Argentina. It was named after the ship HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern part of South America, which lasted from 1826 to 1830.

The channel's eastern area forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina, and the western region is entirely within Chile. It is a prominent area to watch rare endemic dolphins and the less-studied pygmy right whales.

Beagle Channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands, including the islands of:

  • Picton, Lennox, and Nueva Islands
  • Navarino Island
  • Hoste Island
  • Londonderry Island

Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan to the north, and the open-ocean Drake Passage to the south are the three navigable passages around South America between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. However, most commercial shipping uses the open-ocean Drake Passage.