Andalucia Diary – Seasonal Travel Notes

Rio Tinto Huelva Andalucia Spain Martian Like Environment

Rio Tinto river – the Martian-like environment in south west Andalucia

Copper, silver and gold have been exploited from the Rio Tinto area for some 5,000 years. This corner of the beautiful pine-clad Andalusian province of Huelva is rich in minerals, and it is only in recent years that the mines have been abandoned.

Rio Tinto, Huelva, Andalucia, Spain

The area takes its name from the extraordinary rusty-red river that flows from the mountains down through the mining area.

Rio Tinto, Huelva, Andalusia, Spain

A portion of the mining area is open to the public, called the ‘Rio Tinto Mining Park‘, which gives access to the Rio Tinto river. The visitor park includes a rickety, narrow gauge mine train that takes visitors along the edge of part of this striking red and orange Rio Tinto, as well as past a turn-of-the-century ‘locomotive graveyard’.

Rio Tinto Mine Railway Tour

Train Graveyard Rio Tinto Huelva

The source of the river is within the mineral rich Sierra Morena mountain system, so there’s natural contamination from the iron in the earth as well as heavy metal contamination from the disused mines.

Our guide explained that there is practically no oxygen in the water and it is very acidic (ph2), yet some life still manages to survive. As you walk to the edge of the water and step across stones, one sees that the river is full of bacterial growth. These bacteria survive in this extreme environment by living off the iron and minerals in the water.

Rio Tinto, Huelva, Andalucia, Spain where only bacteria live

It’s for this reason Andalucía’s Rio Tinto has attracted the attention of Astro Biologists and NASA as they believe this is the closest they can get to a subterranean Martian environment, where water might be present and bacterial life sustainable!! They’ve also tested space suits and robots here!

Rio Tinto Mine 19th Century

Rio Tinto Mine iron smelting slag

The small historic area open to visitors is managed by a foundation and to be honest it is not that well-presented (it could be much more dynamic as there is so much to see), but I found the old mines including the preserved ‘Peña de Hierro’, the river and the history truly fascinating.

The Brits, in the 19th Century, with their superior technology came to Spain to exploit the area, bringing modern techniques for mining and distribution. They formed ‘The Riotinto Company Limited’ that was to dominate the area for almost a century, creating a ‘little England’ in Andalucía – a Victorian community with strict British protocol and little desire to integrate. In the village of Rio Tinto one can also visit a museum and a house from the British era in the 19th Century.

The Brits left in 1954 and Franco as a dictator nationalised the mines (although the British mining company went onto become the Rio Tinto Group, a UK head-quartered multinational business which is still active today, mining across the world).

Even with a first-hand visit, it’s only with applications like ‘Google Earth’ that you truly get a feeling the vast scale of the mining operations here. The mines include what was until recently one of the deepest and largest open cast mines on the planet.

Interestingly, with the higher prices of copper and other metals and the improvement in mining technology, the Rio Tinto mines might re-open in the future.

Rio Tinto, Huelva, Andalucia, Spain Iron Oxide Water

18 people like this post.

  1. Sue Sharpe (@suesharpe1)
    Sue Sharpe (@suesharpe1)Oct 12, 2013

    Great article, Andrew, just the right side of geeky, for me!

    • Andrew Forbes
      Andrew ForbesOct 12, 2013

      Well, what can I say, I’m a ‘mine’ of information. You’ll thank me when the Astrobiology question comes up in the pub quiz! 🙂

  2. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas
    Cat of Sunshine and SiestasOct 12, 2013

    I had a student from Rio Tinto, and he has always encouraged me to go see the mines (it’s difficult to get to without a car). Apparently the game of football was brought over by the UK miners, too!

    • Andrew Forbes
      Andrew ForbesOct 12, 2013

      Hi Cat, thanks for dropping by. Yes, you’re right it’s not easily reached without a car and also it’s not that well sign-posted. There’s great potential there for tourism; with all the history, nature, and more but there hasn’t been the investment.
      Huelva is wonderful as you know, and up in the mountains is beautiful with the old dehesas and cortijos and all those oak trees!

  3. Fiona Flores Watson
    Fiona Flores WatsonOct 13, 2013

    Fabulous photos, Rio Tinto’s colours are so unreally vivid! The first football pitch in Spain was indeed built by the British in Rio Tinto, as well as the first golf course. They also built a railway to take workers and materials down to the coast,I found the museum facinating, partly due to the company I was in: my engineer husband and train-mad son. Although I agree some of it could be better presented.

    • Andrew Forbes
      Andrew ForbesOct 13, 2013

      Thanks Fiona – interesting stuff, I didn’t know that. Our young Andalusian guide was excellent and she spoke intelligently about the Brits during this era, but as Victorians they sounded pretty insular and strict, ostracising those that married Spaniards!

  4. Melanie La Casa Noble
    Melanie La Casa NobleOct 16, 2013

    It is amazing that the mines are here, just 30 minutes drive from Aracena – so many people come here to taste the ham and soak up the sunshine and are surprised to find something as other-worldly and truly historically interesting as the mines that they can work into their explorations of the area. Great article.

    • Andrew Forbes
      Andrew ForbesOct 18, 2013

      Yes, it was easy to get there from La Casa Noble. Just missed the quality of the tapas in Aracena!

  5. Lynette Josephine Denny
    Lynette Josephine DennyOct 16, 2013

    Yes, the Rio Tinto River and Mines are truly amazing. Just another of the features one can enjoy while visiting this area in Spain that is so close to Aracena and La Casa Noble.

  6. Shiladitya Banerjee
    Shiladitya BanerjeeNov 13, 2013

    Great article and pictures. Thanks for sharing 🙂 . Could you give me an information: is it possible to reach the mines by public transport from Seville or Huelva? Thanks a lot 🙂

    • Andrew Forbes
      Andrew ForbesNov 13, 2013

      Thank you. To be honest I am not aware of public transport to the mines but they are included in tours, so I think the bext thing to do is contact a local travel agent to see who is offering tours of that area that start in Seville or Huelva. Good luck

      • Shiladitya Banerjee
        Shiladitya BanerjeeNov 13, 2013

        Thank you very much 🙂 . Okay, I shall do that when I reach Seville. Well written & encouraging photos 🙂

  7. Tarry Celle
    Tarry CelleSep 16, 2014

    I am in the process of planning a trip to the Mineral Park Rio Tinto

  8. Maureen
    MaureenDec 29, 2015

    I looked at your site wanting more information about the area after seeing one of the winning photos in the National Geographic Traveler magazine photo contest(2015). Another interesting place I plan to see when I get to Spain. Thanks for the wonderful photos and the stories behind them.

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Andrew ForbesTravel & Lifestyle Marketing Communications Consultant | Travel Editor Web: www.andrewforbes.com Twitter : @andrewaforbes Instagram @andrewaforbes and @luxurynavigatorView all posts by Andrew Forbes »