Bordering Portugal, Huelva province is the most westerly in Andalucía. Its stunning, well preserved beaches run for kilometres, continuing across the Guadiana and Guadalquivir river basins and on into the Portuguese Algarve.
It is a province of striking contrasts; beautiful, protected natural areas unprecedented in Europe; alongside intensive agriculture and mammoth industrialisation and mining. These opposites are always at odds with each other yet somehow manage to maintain some degree of balance.
For thousands of years the province has been a source of valuable minerals, with mining a major industry for some five thousand years. Copper, silver and gold were successfully mined until very recently and extraction continues for iron and other mineral ores. The vast, crater like open cast mines have transformed huge parts of this verdant province, and the highly acidic Rio Tinto, contaminated by minerals for millennia, is now of international significance to scientific bodies such as NASA. The river surprisingly supports bacterial life in its extraordinarily coloured waters of bright green, azure blue, yellow, and of course as the river’s name implies, red. Astrobiologists believe that the conditions in the river might mimic the inhospitable environments of planets in our solar system. The huge mining area has also become a visitor attraction and one can explore the mining crater on a small tourist train and learn about the history of the mines including the British influence during the Victorian era.
Yet, Huelva is one of the greatest destinations for nature tourism in the world. The reason is the ‘Donaña National Park’, one of the most bio diverse wetlands on the planet. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an essential habitat for thousands of European and African migratory birds as well as one of the few remaining places one might catch a glimpse of the rare Iberian Lynx or the Spanish Imperial Eagle. Access is strictly controlled, so to enjoy this natural paradise one must join an organised tour in specially designed semi-amphibious vehicles or use one of the many private guides available. There are also controlled routes for mountain biking, and horse riding too.
This is a wonderful place for photography, as there are over three hundred species of bird; and a peaceful escape where one can marvel at the diverse beauty of this divine corner of Andalucía.
The parks eleven hundred square kilometres of protected habitat encompasses pine forests, wetlands, lagoons teeming with life, and huge sand dunes that border the thirty kilometres or so of untouched beach. Close by is the wild west style village of El Rocío, where every year a million or more pilgrims come to show their devotion to the Virgin del Rocío, and have a long weekend of partying.
Head closer to Huelva capital, and one finds the Franciscan Monastery of ‘ Santa María de la Rábida’. Founded seven hundred years ago, the monastery has a wonderful feeling of history, emphasised even more so as one looks out of the ancient windows catching glimpses of the modern day petrochemical and refinery plants on the edge of the city. This Monastery though has a very particular connection to history, to the discovery of the Americas in fact. Christopher Columbus left the port of Palos de la Frontera, close to Huelva city on his first transatlantic voyage. His challenges of getting finance and Royal patronage for his journeys of discovery are well documented and it is interesting to note that it was at this monastery where he finally secured the support of the Spanish Monarchy. A visit here is a really interesting and enjoyable introduction to the history of the city.
Beyond the captivating Christopher Columbus tours, and the attractive Victorian Quarter, Huelva is also a vibrant, modern city with great food and plenty of culture. With its fertile lands and abundant seafood, eating in Huelva is a pleasure. Look out for seasonal dishes that reflect the province, such as prawns and freshly fried fish and for something a little sweet, Huelva strawberries and raspberries are the best on the Iberian Peninsula. All around the main palm fringed square of Plaza de Monjas are small eateries, but don’t be put off by the simplicity of the decor; many serve superb local dishes. For something a little more refined, travel a few kilometres west to the village of Aljaraque, and the Restaurant ‘La Plazuela’. Here one finds fresh local ingredients and dishes served with very friendly service.
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