In 1515, Juan Sebastián Elkano, a sailor from Getaria, signed up for an expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan that sought to find a western passage to the Indies. Elkano ended up becoming the captain of the expedition after Magellan’s death, and in 1522 he docked in the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain along with 17 other men on board the only ship out of the original five that survived the journey. “Your Majesty, we estimate and suspect that we have discovered and traveled around the entire circumference of the world,” Elkano wrote in a letter to King Charles I.
Getaria’s reenactment of the arrival of this local hero in the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda has become an important folk tradition. In 1922, the first recreation was staged to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the feat, and since then it has taken place once every four years. The reenactment of the Juan Sebastián Elkano’s return coincides with the festival honoring patron saint San Salvador in August. A replica of the Nao Victoria appears on the horizon with tattered and dirty sails, torn to shreds in places, and dark, splintered wood that refuses to give out. Bringing up the rear, several local boats escort the ship to the port, and a twenty-one gun salute announces her return.
Raggedy, exhausted, and dazed, the crew members disembark from the boat and stumble over to San Salvador Church. Juan Sebastián Elkano himself is the first to step foot on dry land, giving in to the impulse to fall to his knees and kiss the ground. The church bells toll in honor of their return. Inside the church, Elkano and the 17 surviving crew members, illuminated by the candles they carry in their hands, stand before the altar and give thanks to the Virgen de la Antigua for protecting them on the high seas.
In the meantime, the royal court has gathered at the Monument to Juan Sebastián Elkano, where none other than Emperor Charles I receives the sailor to hear the story of his voyage in his own words. Elkano now appears recuperated, rested, and wearing clean clothes, accompanied by five children who represent the beauty of each of the five continents. After the royal reception, Elkano is greeted by the townspeople in the Plaza de Getaria, where a choir sings the hymn “Gora Elkano.”
The reenactment of the return of Juan Sebastián Elkano has gained a larger and larger audience over the years, drawing spectators from all over Spain. It commemorates one of the most amazing feats of all time, the greatest nautical adventure ever undertaken up to that point. A Spanish ship made a journey of over 80,000 kilometers to discover a passage to the Pacific Ocean and complete the first journey around the world in history. It’s only natural that Getaria wants to pay homage to its favorite son who, as stated by the inscription on the globe given to him as a gift by Charles I, was “el primero que me dio la vuelta.”