Stretching from the pilgrimage village of El Rocío, east to the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and down to the Atlantic, Huelva’s vast Doñana National Park is breathtaking – and now is the time to visit, with the forthcoming Pilgrimage to Rocio
We are up early to explore one of Spain’s most important national parks. ‘At this time of day, the light is low enough that it truly ignites the colours of the flamingos’ explains José our guide from DiscoveringDonana.com, whose enthusiasm is compelling.
We’re in El Rocio, the Wild West style town in Huelva province, in the west of Andalucía, where the streets are of sand and outside every property are wooden bars for trying up horses. This is one of the main gateways to La Doñana, one of Spain’s greatest national parks, and probably one of the last vast wetlands of Europe. As the sun continues to get higher in the sky, in front of us flamingos, wildfowl, ducks, geese, spoonbills and coots fill the horizon.
‘Let’s go and search for Lynx!’ suggests José later, as we head back to the vintage Land Rover. This is a day of true off-the-beaten-track adventure, and within minutes we’re heading into the protected reserve.
As in so many of Andalucía’s most magical places, here nature, legend, ancient customs and modern life collide. The story goes that way back in the thirteenth century, a hunter navigating the Huelva wetlands of La Doñana saw an icon of the Virgin Mary in a tree; captivated and in awe he attempted, without success to take the effigy home to his village of Almonte. Ever since this image of the Virgin known as the La Blanca Paloma (the White Dove) has been part of local and national culture. So every year, on the Christian festival of Pentecost (May 19, 2013 and June 6 – 9th 2014), a pilgrimage is made to the local baroque style church, ‘La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rocío’ in the village.
Over the centuries this ‘Romeria’ has grown to be one of the biggest pilgrimages in the world, and it’s one huge party.
Access to the national park and wetlands is strictly controlled. Although more than a million people arrive in the tiny village of El Rocío for the Romeria, throughout the year this UNESCO world heritage natural treasure is managed and patrolled by rangers. However there are a handful of nature guide companies that provide access to the park as part of private or group tours. That’s why we are with a professional tour company, Discovering Doñana where all guides are qualified and accredited for access to the national park. José Angel Villagas is a Biologist by training and his passion and knowledge makes a park safari a memorable experience.
The jewel in La Doñana’s crown is of course ‘la marisma’ or wetlands that together with neighbouring countryside around the delta of the Guadalquivir river, cover a staggering 1000 or more square kilometres that stretch all the way down to the moving sand dunes of the Huelva beaches and the Atlantic ocean. This part of the Costa de la Luz is one of Europe’s longest stretches of untouched, undeveloped Mediterranean coast.
The reserve is the seasonal home for all manner of migrating birds including the Ibis, an elegant and exotic bird that makes a distinctive site as flies cross the sky. Terns, Herons and flamingos are also easy to see, as well as storks, egrets, kites, eagles and vultures.
Yet this natural paradise is potentially under threat. These wetlands, which are crucial for the survival of hundreds of bird species that migrate from Africa to Europe, only receive about twenty five per cent of the water they once did. The Guadalquivir river is being dredged so cruise liners can access Seville, whilst the immense strawberry plantations, for which Huelva is famous, are alleged to be taking too much water through illegal wells. These factors combined with nearby domestic, agricultural and mining demands means that the park is in danger, much like its elusive residents the Iberian lynx.