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Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation

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This article is an itinerary.

The Magellan–Elcano circumnavigation, taking place between 1519 and 1522 was the first recorded journey around the globe. Taking about three years, out of the five ships and 270 men embarking on the journey, only one ship with a crew of 18 returned – these were the first recorded persons to have sailed around the world. This itinerary presents their sailing around the world, from Spain to South America, Oceania, Southeast Asia, and along Africa's west coast back up to Spain.

Understand[edit]

Ferdinand Magellan

The Voyages of Columbus, as well as the Cape Route discovered by Vasco da Gama, paved the way for Magellan.

Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães) was born in northern Portugal (depending on the source near Porto or Vila Real) around 1480. He enlisted in the Portuguese fleet at the age of 25, spending years in India and participating in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511. Back in Portugal he eventually fell into disfavor with his superiors including the king. As a result of this, Magellan moved to Spain.

The Spanish were, just like Magellan himself, interested in finding a way to India and the Spice Islands by sailing westwards; this was indeed the objective of Columbus' voyages two decades earlier. Moreover, the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 split up the world between Spain and Portugal awarding the latter virtually all of the Old World, which became yet another reason for the Spanish to look for another route to the East. Together with cosmographer Rui Falero (who backed out just before the expedition left Spain) Magellan presented his plans to the king of Spain. In March 1518 they were named captains and Commanders of the Order of Santiago, equipped with ships and supplies and granted great benefits from the upcoming trip including an island for each one, monopoly of the discovered route for ten years and a fifth of the gains of the voyage.

The departure, originally scheduled for July, took place on August 10, 1519 from Seville and a little more than a month later the ships set out from Sanlúcar de Barrameda into the Atlantic. There were about 270 men and five ships in the fleet, Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago and Victoria. Trinidad was the flagship and commanded by Magellan himself. The crew consisted of people from many different southern and central European countries, perhaps most notably the Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta, who served as Magellan's assistant and made notes about the trip. The expedition was named Armada de Molucca, the Fleet of Molucca, as its objective was to reach the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Victoria would be the only ship to complete the circumnavigation, together with only 18 crew members.

Magellan himself wasn't among them, having died in combat on Mactan Island in the Philippines a little more than halfway into the journey. The sailing back to Spain from the Spice Islands was commanded by Juan Sebastián Elcano, native of Getaria in the Basque Country. A soldier and later a merchant captain, he joined the Magellan's expedition as a subordinate officer. After the demise of captains and officers along the trip, Elcano was the commander who completed the circumnavigation and was awarded a coat of arms by the Spanish king, together with a pension. However, Elcano returned to the seas in 1525 as one of the commanders of the even more unlucky Loaísa expedition, whose goal likewise was to get to the Spice Islands via America, and died of malnutrition in July 1526 somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

English privateer Francis Drake made the first circumnavigation under continuous command, from 1577 to 1580.

Prepare[edit]

If you want to make the trip as similar to Magellan's as possible, cruising on small craft is the way to go.

For instance, "digital nomads" (people who work while travelling) could cruise on a sailboat that circumnavigates the world over several years. (See Working abroad for details.)

However, most people likely don't have the equipment, skills or time to make a trip like that and instead opt for flying. Be aware that this trip will entail destinations away from major international airports. To save miles on your RTW ticket (should you opt for one), use it for longer flights only and travel "locally" by budget airlines or overland.

Secondly, many destinations are prone to severe weather during certain times of the year – the tropics have rainy seasons and typhoons while the Austral winter (Northern Hemisphere summer) in the southernmost part of South America means snow and windchill. Weather-wise, the optimal time to make this trip would maybe be starting in February or March; assuming you want to make the trip in 3-4 months or less (of course the trip can be made in just a couple of weeks rushing from place to place).

Get in[edit]

See also: Seville#Get in

The expedition started and ended in Seville, a city that is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Guadalquivir river. Some accounts, regard Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the river as the start and ending point of the journey.

Seville has its own airport and the one in Jerez de la Frontera is the closest passenger airport to Sanlúcar de Barrameda. However, it can also be an option flying to an airport with better flight connections such as Madrid, Malaga or even Lisbon and travel the last section by bus, train or rental car.

Go[edit]

Magellan Elcano Circumnavigation-en.svg

1519[edit]

Seville Cathedral and Archivo de Indias
  • Aug 10 – Seville. The expedition sets off from Seville, at the time the Spanish center of trade with the New World, sailing down the Guadalquivir river. It takes a few days downstream to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, nowadays you can take the bus or travel by rental car. In Sanlúcar, check out the memorial to the survivors of the expedition.
  • Sep 20 – Sanlúcar de Barrameda. As they reach the coast, they are stopped by the authorities who have doubts a Portuguese would have gotten the Spanish king's authorization for this journey. It will take five weeks before they are allowed to continue. Once on the Atlantic, they are followed by the Portuguese Navy sent out by the Portuguese king, who isn't at all happy about the Spanish attempt to colonize and trade in "their" hemisphere of the world. Magellan manages to evade the Portuguese ships before arriving in Tenerife where they replenish their supplies. Modern travelers can either backtrack to Seville or Jerez de la Frontera and fly from there to Tenerife, or take the bus to Cadiz and ferry (weekly departures) to Tenerife.
  • Sep 26 – Canary Islands. The ships set out on the Atlantic. They pass the Cape Verde islands on October 3rd, and cross the Equator on November 20th.
  • Nov 29 – Cabo de Santo Agostinho, south of Recife is the first place in the Americas Magellan arrives at. From Tenerife, you can get to Recife via Las Palmas and Sal and take a bus to Cabo.
Modern-day view of Guanabara Bay, where Rio de Janeiro is located
  • Dec 13-27 – Rio de Janeiro. Today one of South America's highlights and easily accessible by bus or plane from Recife, in 1519 "January river" was but a small settlement that had been discovered by Europeans in 1502 (a city by that name wouldn't be founded here until almost half a century later). Magellan replenishes his supplies and sails on, now encountering some bad storms where the ship Santiago is damaged.

1520[edit]

  • Jan 10 – Rio de la Plata. In early January the ships arrived at Rio de la Plata and spent a few weeks exploring the region, hoping to find a passage to what is now known as the Pacific Ocean. There is a legend that the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo got its name from one of the members in Magellan’s expedition exclaming "Monte vide eu" (I see a mountain) when seeing Cerro hill just west of the current city. However, given that the city was founded about 200 years later, it’s possible that it was some other mountain elsewhere on the coast he saw. The modern traveller can take the plane or bus from Rio down to Montevideo, onwards to Colonia with a stunning old town, cross the Rio by ferry to Buenos Aires and continue from there by bus along the coast. If really in a hurry, fly from Rio to Buenos Aires and on to Rio Gallegos to access points mentioned later in this itinerary.
  • Feb 27 – Bahia de los Patos. The expedition sailed along the coast, hoping to find a passage. In one place they found plenty of penguins instead, and named the bay Bahia de los Patos or "Bay of the Ducks".
Puerto San Julián features a replica of Victoria, the only ship of the expedition to make the circumnavigation
  • Mar 31-Aug 24 – Puerto San Julián (Patagonia). With the Austral winter approaching, the expedition decided to overwinter in a place he named Puerto San Julián, today the place of an eponymic town of about 6000 inhabitants. However, the crew had grown tired of the trip into nowhere and a mutiny broke out on three of the ships on April 1. Magellan managed to take control over the situation, and executed the leaders of the mutiny but did spare many of the participants (including Elcano) as he could not afford to loose too many crewmembers. Interestingly, Francis Drake would also overwinter here on a round the world trip and in the same way quench a mutiny.
The winter was harsh and food supplies scarce. During the stay in Puerto San Julián, they encountered natives of the Patagon tribe. Around 2 meters tall, they were regarded as "giants". During the winter, the repaired Santiago was sent out to find the passage. It was wrecked during a storm in the Santa Cruz River (divers recovered the wreck in 1985), but many crewmembers managed to get back to Puerto San Julián.
Several hundred kilometers from the nearest airport, it's probably easiest to just take a bus from Buenos Aires or possibly a rental car. The 2250 km trip will take about 36 hours.
  • Oct 21 – Cabo Virgenes. Setting off from Puerto San Julián, after two months of exploring the coast, they passed a peninsula they named Cabo Virgenes – the southeastern tip of today's Argentine Patagonia. They then entered what today is known as the Strait of Magellan (originally they named it "Estrecho de Todos los Santos", Strait of All Saints). Ships were spread out in order to find the best route. One of the ships, San Antonio, mutineed on Nov 20 and sailed back to Spain where it would arrive half a year later. Its crew of about 50 was jailed, but freed later when the survivors of the round the world trip arrived and told about the hardships of the voyage.
Cabo Froward, the southernmost point on the South American mainland
Modern day travelers can likely travel around by bus or rental car. If opting for the former, you will likely just get to Rio Gallegos by regular bus and need to take a tour or taxi out to the cape. Rio Gallegos is reportedly a hub for travel around the region so it's likely possible to cruise on the strait by boat from here (or take a sidetrip to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world). From Rio Gallegos, continue by bus to Punta Arenas on the Chilean side of Patagonia. From here you can get at least to Cabo Froward and possibly even deeper into the strait.
  • Nov 28 – Pacific Ocean. After 38 days of sailing through the strait, the expedition now consisting of three ships arrived at the Pacific Ocean – Magellan was actually the person giving the ocean its name (Mar Pacifico), as the ocean was so quiet and calm compared to the awful winter storms the expedition had had to endure in the southern Atlantic and the strait.

1521[edit]

Puka-Puka nowadays has about 160 inhabitants
  • Jan 21 – Sharks Islands (Puka-Puka). The first European to sail across the Pacific, Magellan of course had no idea how large this ocean was. He expected it to take one month to sail across it, while it in reality took three. There were several islands relatively close to the route where they could've replenish their supplies but they had no clue about them and missed them all. The expedition stumbled upon some of the uninhabited Line Islands. As there was nothing to get from these coral atolls (hence named Islas Infortunadas, Unlucky Islands), food and fresh water supplies started running low and the crew had to resort to eating rats.
  • Feb 4 – San Pablo Island (Vostok Island or Flint Island). The expedition encounters yet another atoll, it's unclear whether this was today's Vostok Island or Flint Island.
For the 21st century traveler, the trip is of course much more comfortable and likely goes by plane from Punta Arenas or another southern Chilean destination up to Santiago and onwards via Auckland and Manila to Guam – provided you do not plan to visit these small atolls which apart from Puka-Puka are still rather inaccessible. You can get to Puka-Puka (nowadays part of French Polynesia) by flying from Santiago to the Easter Island, on to Papeete, Makemo and finally Puka-Puka. To continue, backtrack to Papeete and fly to Guam via Tokyo. Note that island-hopping in Oceania might entail infrequent and hugely expensive flights.
  • Mar 6 – Guam. Arriving in Guam in the Mariana Islands group, the expedition finally gets fresh fruit, water and fish. First believing that they've arrived at the northern end of the Spice Islands, they later to their disappointment learn that it's not true. While in Guam, the ships are boarded and looted by natives, wherefore Magellan names the island group Islas de los Ladrones, "Islands of the Thieves".
Guiuan
  • Mar 15 – Suluan – Eastern Samar, Guiuan. Arriving in Guiuan, Magellan's crew are the first Europeans to arrive in the Philippines. From Guam, fly via Manila and Cebu to Tacloban, and take a minibus to Guiuan.
  • Mar 17 – Homonchon. Two days later they arrived at the island of Homonchon, just south of Guiuan. Unlike on Guam, they were warmly welcomed by the natives who brought them fresh food, spices and wine. A setback was that the cartographers measured that they had traveled so far west that they've entered the Portuguese Hemisphere (according to the Treaty of Tordesillas). Nevertheless, the treaty also allowed a party to establish trading posts in the other hemisphere, providing that the particular land was previously unclaimed and the explorer manages to make treaties with the natives. This prompts Magellan to make alliances and treaties with all local chiefs he meets. Homonchon is reportedly accessible by boat from Guiuan.
  • Mar 28 – Limasawa. Sailing southwest they arrived at the island of Limosawa, where the slave Enrique in Magellan's expedition was able to communicate with the locals. It is unclear where Enrique originally came from (he was captured in Malacca), but this fact makes it possible that he was the very first person to circumnavigate the world. On March 31, the first mass in the Philippines was held here. You can find a shrine on the place where the mass was held, and the first cross in the Philippines is also worth visiting.
Unless you travel by boat, you need to backtrack from Guiuan to Tacloban, take another bus down to Maasin from where you can likely get by bus or taxi to the town of Padre Burgos and a boat to Limasawa.
  • Apr 7 – Cebu. Arriving in Cebu, Magellan strikes up more friendships with local chiefs. Magellan manages to convert the chief Humabon and 2000 locals to Christianity and promises to make Humabon the superior ruler over the region. Local chiefs agree to this, except for one – Lapu-Lapu.
Modern day travelers should backtrack to Maasin, and take the ferry to Cebu. Lapu-Lapu is just outside Cebu.
Lapu-Lapu statue with the Magellan Memorial in the background
  • Apr 27 – Battle of Mactan (Lapu-Lapu). A joint force of 49 of Magellan’s crew and some natives from Humabon's and other tribes attack Lapu-Lapu in Mactan to force him to accept Humabon's (and the Spanish king's) superiority. The attack is a disaster; the attackers soon discover they're far outnumbered by Lapu-Lapu's warriors (numbering up to 1,500) and coral reefs prevent the ships from getting within gun range of the island. Magellan dies in battle and his body is taken as a war trophy by Lapu-Lapu, never to be seen of again. The statue of the chief is perhaps the most important sight in the city named after him.
  • May 2 – Leaving the Visayas. With Magellan dead, the relations between the locals and remaining Europeans soured quickly. Afraid that the Europeans now would try to conquer the domain of Humabon and kill him, several crewmembers including João Serrão, captain of Concepción and leader of the expedition after Magellan's death, are poisoned by the natives. After a battle, the expedition members manage to escape, also Enrique manages to escape from the Europeans and there are no records of him afterwards. As the crew had been decimated to the point that there wasn't enough men for three ships, Concepción, the least seaworthy of them, was burned in the waters outside Bohol. The two remaining ships sail west, still searching for the Spice Islands.
  • Jun 21 – Palawan. Called the "Land of Promise" by the chronicler Pigafetta, the crew was very happy to find an island to replenish their food stock. Here they meet some Moro pilots who guide them onwards through the shallow waters. Palawan is accessible from Cebu by direct flight.
  • Aug 17-Sep 21 – Brunei. The expedition reaches Brunei and stays there for 35 days. They're impressed by the wealth of the rajah who however isn't interested in their goods. From Palawan, fly via Manila to get to Brunei.
Tidore landscape
  • Nov 8-Dec 21 – Tidore, Moluccas (next to Ternate). Sailing back around Borneo and through the archipelago of Mindanao, the expedition now consisting of 115 men and two ships finally reaches Tidore about two years and two months since they left Spain. The easiest way for this leg is flying to Jakarta and on to Ternate, from where Tidore is just a short boat trip away.
They crew got lucky this time, just a few days earlier a Portuguese Navy detachment that had been searching for them for two years sailing the shorter route across the Indian Ocean had been expelled from the island by the local rajah and sailed back to Portuguese Malacca.
The Spanish expedition got along with the locals much better and a few weeks later the ships are loaded with valuable cloves as well as supplies for the crew. However, when it was time to depart, they noticed that Trinidad was leaking badly and it had to stay behind for repairs. Commanded by Juan Elcano, the slightly smaller ship Victoria continued westwards on December 21 as the sole ship left of the expedition.
  • Dec 29 – Ambon Island. Victoria makes a final stop in the Spice Islands. Ambon (Pattimura Airport) is a short plane hop away from Ternate.

1522[edit]

  • Jan 25 – Timor. Victoria makes a last stop in Timor (it's not clear where on the island) before heading southwest into on the Indian Ocean. Getting to East Timor entails a long detour via Jakarta and Bali. The Indonesian western half of the island (El Tari airport) is accessible via Makassar.
  • Apr 6 – Trinidad sails east. After a few months of repair, the flagship Trinidad leaves Ternate, aiming to sail back to Spain the same way it came. It proved to be a bad decision; as they weren't familiar with the wind patterns of the Pacific, they drifted north almost all the way to Japan. When they managed to return south, the barely seaworthy flagship was captured by the Portuguese and sank in a storm while anchored. Four of Trinidad's crew made it back to Spain several years later.
Cape of Good Hope
  • May 19-22 – Cape of Good Hope. The crossing of the Indian Ocean was a chore, just like the trip had been hitherto. The ship started taking in water. Moreover they ran out of salt and as such fish and meat spoiled quickly in the tropical climate. Pumping water out of the ship while living on water and rice, the exhausted crew entered the Atlantic four months after leaving Timor.
Getting to the Cape of the Good Hope requires several flights; flying back to Jakarta and via a South or Southeast Asian hub to Johannesburg and onwards to Cape Town on a domestic flight (Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to Cape Town with a stop in Johannesburg). From Cape Town you can get to the Cape of Good Hope (some 60 kms south) by rental car, on a tour, or by taking the train to Simon's Town and hiking/hitchhiking the last 20 km.
  • Jul 9 – Santiago, Cape Verde. From Africa's southwestern tip, they sailed north along the coast. Desperate to get supplies and slaves to man the pumps (tens of the ship's crew had died from scurvy and disease since they left Asia), Elcano sailed to the Cape Verdean island of Santiago, which was a Portuguese colony, probably landing in the old capital of Cidade Velha. He pretended to be a Spanish ship from the Americas, and managed to get some supplies. On Cape Verde they were puzzled that the local calendar was one day ahead of the ship's (they've lost one day by sailing around the world westwards). By accident, however, the Portuguese learned that the ship was carrying cloves and cinnamon and thus was part of the mysterious Spanish expedition to Southeast Asia. Elcano managed to escape, leaving 13 men behind, including Pigafetta. Everyone eventually managed to get back to Spain.
From Cape Town, you can fly via Luanda to Praia on Santiago, or alternatively via Johannesburg and Dakar. Cidade Velha is 10 km west of Praia.
Memorial in Sanlúcar de Barrameda
  • Sep 6 – Sanlúcar de Barrameda. About three years after leaving, the expedition consisting of just one ship and a crew of 18 arrive in Spain.
  • Sep 8 – Seville. Sailing up on the Guadalquivir river, they reach Seville on September 8, 1522. Elcano and the survivors were hailed as heroes.
To complete the circumnavigation, fly from Praia to Lisbon and take plane or bus to Seville (with or without a sidetrip to Sanlúcar de Barrameda).

Aftermath[edit]

The expedition itself was a disaster; of the crew of 270, more than 200 perished including all the five original captains. They also brought back just one shipload of (very valuable) spices. Nevertheless they also brought back valuable information about parts of the world Europeans had never visited before and the size of the Pacific Ocean and therethrough the size of the Earth itself. While the Spanish didn't get a foothold in the Spice Islands, Magellan's trip nevertheless helped establishing Philippines as a Spanish colony in Asia, accessed through Central America.

Stay safe[edit]

This itinerary takes you through several parts of the world. Some countries on the trip have high crime rates (Brazil, South Africa), also, severe weather and tropical diseases are a risk at many places. Consult the individual country guides for precautions.

Sailing your own ship around the globe is, not unlike at Magellan's time, an expedition (at least if compared to flying). It requires plenty of prior sailing experience, preparation and time and a description of such a project and its risks is probably beyond the scope of a travel guide.


This itinerary to Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation is a usable article. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.