Remember those geography lessons, drawing maps and learning about the sea routes discovered by 16th century explorers?
Now we simply sail in on cruise ships, taking it all for granted, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to thank for discovering that the world could be circumnavigated by sea.
That was 500 years ago, when he set sail from Spain in August 1591 with a fleet of five ships to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands – and it was on this journey he navigated what is now known as the Strait of Magellan.
Although Magellan never returned (he was killed in a battle during the voyage), one of the five ships, Nao Victoria, limped home with 18 of the original 270 crew with the trailblazing news – and a cargo of spices.
When sailing into the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica Region of South America on a cruise ship, it is hard to contemplate how it all must have seemed to the early explorers who crossed the Atlantic to reach the distant continent, but thankfully, much of the landscape remains virtually unchanged.
From remote Cape Horn to Wulaia Bay, a cruise is almost the only way to see the magnificent mountains, glaciers and abundance of birdlife that still remains off the main tourist track.
Journey from the End of the world
The world’s southern-most city, Ushuaia, is the departure point for cruises along the Beagle Channel and around Cape Horn. The city was established by Argentine naval officer, Augusto Lasserre, in 1884 and cruise visitors can explore the eerie former prison where inmates lived in freezing conditions with nowhere to escape, and stop at one of the spit roast restaurants for giant servings of lamb, best washed down with local beer.
Don’t miss: Call into the tourist office to get your passport stamped Fin del Mundo – End of the world.
Viking Cruise’s 18-night South America & The Chilean Fjords cruise sails from Buenos Aires, Argentina on Viking Jupiter. From £6,890pp, departs December 4, 2019 (0800 298 9700; vikingcruises.co.uk).
Watch birds glide over Drake Passage
To visit the Antarctic Peninsula by ship you have to cross the infamous Drake Passage – there’s no other way. It’s generally a two-day journey and it can be a rough ride – but not always. Cruise ships with stabilisers make it far more comfortable than the conditions Sir Francis Drake had to endure in 1578.
He navigated the body of water between Cape Horn and South Shetland Island, which is named after him, although it is called Mar de Hoces in Spanish because some claim the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces saw it first.
Don’t miss: Get out on deck to look for black-browed albatross, sooty shearwaters and white-chinned petrels as they glide on air currents alongside the ship.
Silversea’s 12-day roundtrip cruise from Ushuaia sails on board Silver Explorer. From £11,250pp, including flights, departs December 5, 2019 (00 44(0)-844-251-0837; silversea.com).
Meet the lighthouse family
Cape Horn is a sheer 1394 ft (425 metre) high rocky promontory that overlooks the Drake Passage and for many years it was the navigation route between the Pacific and Atlantic.
It got its name from Dutch navigators Jakob Le Maire and Willem Schouten who were the first to sail through in 1616, and Schouten named it after his hometown town of Hoorn.
Now a national park and World Biosphere Reserve, if the weather is fair Celebrity Eclipse guests can go ashore on the windswept island.
Don’t miss: The Chilean navy maintains a lighthouse on the island, staffed by a lighthouse keeper and his family, so take a tender to visit them – they enjoy the company.
Celebrity Cruises’ 15-night Chile and Argentina fly/cruise departs from London Heathrow. From £3,380pp, departs San Antonio December 6, 2019 (0800 441 4054; celebritycruise.co.uk).
Sail along the the Beagle Channel, named after HMS Beagle, which carried English naturalist Charles Darwin on a five-year voyage, to view Glacier Alley. Stella Australis passengers can board zodiacs to see hidden glaciers, hulking masses of snow and ice which glisten and creak in the sunlight.
Don’t miss: Pia Glacier, which extends from the mountaintops down to the sea. Nobody knows how it got its name but one theory is it is named after Princess Maria Pia of Savoy (1847-1911), daughter of the Italian king.
Don’t miss: The Magellanic penguins on the Tucker Islets.
Swoop Patagonia offers five days on Stella Australis sailing from Ushuaia. From £1,193pp (cruise only) with regular departures from September 2019 to April 2020 (0117 369 0196; swoop-patagonia.com).
Gateway to adventure
Sail into Puerto Natales and it is amusing to see gap year travellers and empty nesters both making the most of their new freedom to discover Torres del Paine National Park. The first European to discover the area was Juan Ladrillero, a Spanish explorer who was looking for the Strait of Magellan’s western passage in 1557 – and what beauty he found.
From the new hybrid-powered ship ms Roald Amundsen cruise passengers can take tours into the mountains to see guanaco, grey fox, rhea – you may even spot a puma.
Don’t miss: Keep looking up to see swooping Andean condors, the world’s largest flying bird.
Hurtigruten offers 19 nights from £6,736pp on ms Roald Amundsen sailing from Santiago de Chile. From £7,236pp, departing Santiago de Chile on March 15, 2020 (020 38 115 280; hurtigruten.com).
Pause before Patagonia’s national park
Cruise through the Magellan Strait into Punta Arenas, a town that deserves more than a fleeting glance, before exploring Patagonia’s mighty Torres del Paine National Park.
Wander in the lovely square, see the Ferdinand Magellan statue and call into the open-air Museo Nao Victoria, which has a full-size replica of the ship that completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. It is difficult to believe how anyone could have survived years at sea in Nao Victoria, a 88.5ft (27-metre) x 23ft (7 metre) carrack.
Don’t miss: The Chilean Antarctic Institute, next to the Post Office where Captain Falcon Scott sent 400 letters announcing the safe return of his Discovery expedition in 1904.
Holland America’s 16-night cruise and stay South America Passage sails from San Antonio (Santiago) on ms Zaandam. From £2,049pp, departs from San Antonio (Santiago) Chile on November 2, 2019 (0344 338 8605; hollandamerica.com).
Remembering the Yaghan people
Wulaia Bay was home to Tierra del Fuego’s largest settlement of Yaghan people, naked hunters who were described by Darwin when he sailed in with Captain Robert FitzRoy in the 1830s. With Saga Holidays, soak up stories of the world’s southern-most people as you walk through an enchanting Magellanic forest for sublime panoramic views and see your ship, Ventus Australis, in the bay.
Don’t miss: In the old radio station museum you can write a postcard to home and put it in the post barrel. There’s no postman but the idea is that visitors hope someone local to home will also call into this remote spot and return their card by hand.
Saga’s 15-night Patagonia – A Tour to the Ends of the Earth with four-night extension sails on Ventus Australis extension. From £6,398pp, departing September 28, 2019 (0800 056 0464; visit travel.saga.co.uk/south-america).