A Tierra del Fuego cruise is one of South America's most adventurous and memorable travel experiences. Along the way you'll encounter powerful glaciers, adorable penguins, pristine native forests and unspoilt bays. You'll look to land on the mythical Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and enjoy the company of expert guides and like-minded travellers aboard a specialist luxury cruise vessel, venturing out into latitudes explored by few. Let's have a look at what to expect from a Tierra del Fuego cruise and some of the best places to combine it with.
Sail to epic glaciers in pristine fjords and channels
One of the signature features of Patagonia's beautiful landscape is its towering glaciers; ancient compacted masses of brilliant white snow and electric-blue ice which contrast sharply with the verdant leaves of native sub-polar forests and reflect in the icy water below. This is nature at its rawest, with an extraordinary magnetism that has to be experienced in person to be truly appreciated.
Huge chunks of ice detach themselves from the mass after a thunderous rumble and are sent crashing violently into the water below, precipitating gasps of astonishment from onlookers, the frenzied pointing of fingers and the desperate firing of camera shutters. Behind rise chiseled snow-covered Andean peaks, from where the glaciers tumble down. Zodiac boat trips can bring you closer to better appreciate the intricate details, developing cracks and hues of blues and white of these immense walls of ice.
Tierra del Fuego has some of the region's most impressive glaciers; Garibaldi, Aguila, Pia and those which line the evocatively-named Glacier Alley, all named after European countries.
Explore pristine sub-polar forest in historic bays
Another key component of a Tierra del Fuego cruise are the revealing guided forays travellers make into pristine sub-polar forests in beautiful bays.
The most noted of these is Wulaia Bay, a former settlement of the indigenous Yamana tribe which once made a home in these remote territories. In fact it was the aborigines which inspired the distinctive name of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), given to the region by early Western explorers because of the small fires burned incessantly by the locals, even whilst in their trademark lenga canoes when hunting and fishing.
The bay is home to unspoilt forests harbouring an array of native trees and flora, including distinctive lenga, ferns and canelos. They are timeless habitats that likely would have been explored by Charles Darwin when HMS Beagle landed here. Today, intrepid travellers follow established paths and raised broadwalks into the forests in the company of expert Patagonian guides, who will showcase their untouched beauty and reveal their life-sustaining secrets.
Another area of astounding beauty is Ainsworth Bay, a long fjord surrounded by verdant forests, backed by the Darwin Mountains and home to an impressive waterfall and the Marinelli Glacier.
Get close to penguins in their natural habitats
Of course, a key ingredient of a Tierra del Fuego cruise for most is the chance to get up close to wild penguin colonies and other remote wildlife at the end of the world.
The species most commonly associated with Tierra del Fuego is the Magellanic penguin, named after noted Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first to record their existence in the early 16th century. These small birds are best seen at Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, where some 60,000 pairs are estimated to form the largest colony of its kind in Chile. You'll be able to hike through their natural habitat, maintaining a safe distance so as not to disturb them, with plenty of time for memorable photos and to observe their key traits.
Read More: Where to See Penguins in South America
Tuckers Islet (above) is an alternative source for close encounters with Magellanic penguins, around 4,000 in number. They live alongside other typical Patagonian birds such as King cormorants, kelp geese, albatross, eagles, osyter-catchers and the occasional Andean condor. The major difference is that it is not possible to land on Tuckers Islet, approaching instead on a zodiac boat.
Magellanic penguins are best seen between October, when the first males tend to arrive and March, when the colony and its new arrivals migrate north. For those with a particular desire to see King Penguins, you may wish to consider the Guachos, Penguins & Glaciers Australis tour, which encompasses a visit to Useless Bay where a small colony of these live.
Set foot on mythical Cape Horn
There are few places that, just by the mere mention of their name, stir up thoughts of epic adventure in intrepid travellers as Cape Horn does. For many years, this small island at the end of the world was the last frontier for mankind before the great unknown of the Beagle Channel and Antarctica.
Since its discovery by Dutch merchant sailors in the 17th century, rounding Cape Horn has become one of the most notorious, daring and difficult ventures in the nautical world, likened by many to climbing Mount Everest. Charles Darwin, James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan and all those who dreamed big during the California Gold Rush are among those to chance their lives here.
Read More: Cape Horn: Life at Latitude 50
If good weather prevails then you too can have your own Cape Horn adventure, setting foot on the fabled meeting point of the turbulent waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As well as the company of your fellow explorers, you'll also share the island with the Chilean Naval Officer and his wife, who are stationed here for a year, for from any traces of civilisation. You can ask them questions, soak in the raw beauty of the untouched land and imagine what life would have been like for those daring seafarers tackling the open waters at the bottom of the planet, not knowing if they would make it round to the otherside of this great continent.
Enjoy memorable on-board experiences
Embarking on a Tierra del Fuego cruise is an exciting and dynamic experience, with weather conditions, wildlife behaviour and seasonality all dictating the itinerary. This degree of uncertainty actually serves to add to the sense of drama and anticipation, as you never know exactly when lies in store. This is true expedition cruising, in location and in spirit, but with more than a hint of luxury and comfort along the way of course.
Gourmet food, all-inclusive bars stocked with renowned Chilean wines and craft beers and welcoming social areas enrich your on-board experience. A well-stocked library and informative lectures and presentations educate, inspire you and build excitement ahead of your next landing, as you learn about life at the edge of the world and the region's geography, wildlife and history. Panoramic bedroom windows and spacious decks provide comfortable vantage points from which to the survey the glorious scenery and soak in views of powerful mountains and glaciated channels.
Perhaps best of all, cruises in Tierra del Fuego are taken in the company of like-minded travellers and passionate guides, all linked by a shared sense of adventure and discovery.
Discover the world's southernmost cities...
Your adventure in Tierra del Fuego begins before you even look your first Magellanic penguin in the eye, cruise into your first inspiring Patagonian fjord or have your jaw slackened by the first sight of a spectacular glacier. Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile are two of the most isolated and southernmost cities in the world, dramatically located on the shores of the Beagle Channel and the Straits of Magellan respectively.
These cities are not just the beginning or end points of an intrepid Australis Tierra del Fuego cruise, they are small cities with their own tales to tell, dating back to their times as remote military outposts.
In Ushuaia you'll find artisanal shops and laid-back cafes serving herby goulds of yerba mate, the traditional Argentine drink. Venture out further and you'll come across the End of the World Train, taking passengers out into the unique landscapes of these distant latitudes, and traditional Patagonian estancias.
In Punta Arenas you might like to explore the impressive museum of Patagonian artefacts, soak in expansive views at Cerro de la Cruz and survey the remains of Chile's first military outpost and the site of a failed colonial settlement.
...And combine with cosmopolitan capitals
Of course, we also shouldn't overlook the time you'll spend in one or both of the capitals of Chile and Argentina, staying in the heart of these vibrant cities and exploring them in the company of a local expert Veloso Tours guide or at your own pace.
Everybody knows that Buenos Aires is the spiritual home of the tango, performed in timeless halls and the leafy squares of San Telmo, but there's much more to discover as a prelude or addendum to your Tierra del Fuego cruise.
The city has a rich heritage of grand European architecture, inspired by the splendour of turn-of-the-century Paris. There's more European connections in the famous corrugated iron houses of La Boca, established many decades ago by Genovese immigrants, who used the leftover paint in the shipyards in which they worked to decorate their homes in striking hues of primary colours. In the centre, La Casa Rosada dominates Plaza de Mayo, made famous in the film about Evita, whose remains are entombed in the extraordinary Recoleta Cemetery.
Read More: 7 Ways to Experience Buenos Aires
As well as sampling Chile's world class wines in the historic vineyards which surround Santiago, visitors to the Chilean capital can soak in the views across to the Andes from Cerro San Cristobal in the lively Bellavista Barrio, reconstruct its infamous recent political events in the history-steeped centre and enjoy a surprising variety of hiking opportunities in the surrounding countryside.
Read More: 7 Ways to Experience Santiago de Chile
Those with longer to explore might want to head out to the bohemian and picturesque port city of Valparaiso. From both Santiago and Buenos Aires you can easily explore the glorious Lake District, which spreads itself across both Chile and Argentina, separated by the Andes. The region is characterised by its deep blue lakes, conical volcanoes, temperate forests and Germanic towns.
A Tierra del Fuego cruise can also be easily combined with Torres del Paine in the far south of Chilean Patagonia, one of the world's very best national parks for hikers.