The Sierra de Aracena and its timeless air
I wake up on the cold glass of the bus. Through it, I see fields of intense green softly populated by oaks. A docile and beautiful landscape. We have just started to climb the hills of the Sierra de Aracena . Secluded, in this distant corner of Spain, it maintains a certain timeless air, perhaps caused by its impenetrable forests and its scarce economic resources, the bad locals and the luck of the traveler who finds himself before a fairy-tale setting dotted with small century-old villages.
The ideal place to get away from the world for a while and eat one of the delicious hams from the innumerable Iberian pigs that graze in the meadows of the park.
In Aracena, nerve center of the region, a curious journey to the bowels of the earth awaits us. Between the cobbled streets and the white houses a small door opens to another world. An underground world, romantic, of stalactites and pools of transparent water, where you can imagine shadows sliding across its ceilings and sounds from beyond. La Gruta de las Maravillas is a recommendable experience and one of the most hidden flavors of the province of Huelva. An unexpected surprise in the midst of this country atmosphere.
The beautiful town of Aracena
Back in the world of the living, we settle in a rural hotel in the town, huddled around the vibrant fire in the fireplace to get rid of the cold with which we have been received this February night. The stars illuminate us on the way to the Convent. And it is that here is one of the cleanest and darkest skies in Europe according to the Starlight Foundation.
A 17th century convent converted into a hotel and restaurant, a surprising setting that combines past and present, will be our refuge for dinner.
The Iberian pig is a symbol and star dish of the region. All the pleasures that await us at the table are obtained from it. The chef of the Huerto by Arrieros restaurant ensures that each dish served has the distinctive touch of this piece; and the dessert, with acorn-fed flour, still echoes in my memory. I am a long way from the quick and easy food that I once accustomed my body to.
Visit to the Rio Tinto mines
The next morning, half stretched and with a full crop, we take the road and blanket towards the Río Tinto mining basin , a desolate enclave where the English built, in 1873, the first British colony in Spanish territory. Curious reminiscence of the imperialist era, where racism and separatism were part of the daily life of the place.
Seeing this piece of England, with its houses and clubs through which football and tennis – among others – entered our country, shocks and stimulates. But even this does not prepare us for what comes next. The restored centenary wagon awaits us while the locomotive snorts. Beyond these bars, at our feet, the magic begins. Suddenly we are no longer in Huelva.
A river, as if painted in dreams, runs through the surreal gorge into which we enter. Intense reds in the water bathe yellow and ochre-colored lands, black mounds with a volcanic appearance, cliffs of orange and purple mixtures, as if it were the painting of a mad genius. If you come to Río Tinto you are not traveling to Huelva, nor to Andalusia, nor to Spain, but to a decontextualized and magical place that may have once inhabited your imaginary self when you dreamed of some other planet in the galaxy. This place is so special and extravagant that NASA has recently decided to study it, considering that it is the place on Earth that most closely resembles Mars .
The coast of Huelva: Ayamonte
This port in the Guadiana estuary, on the edge of the Atlantic and Portugal , dazzles and relaxes me. Maybe it was because of the sea breeze that diffuses the cold of the mountains; for its bohemian attitude that attracts numerous painters who seek to capture its light; or for being an escape door. I have always been fascinated by those places that suggest you escape, fly or travel. Train stations, airports or docks… Routine breakers, symbols of comings and goings, changes, adventures, rebirths and dreams. Perhaps I feel the same way in this border town, a few rowing strokes away from Portugal and one step away from the gentle current taking you to the Algarve, to the Atlantic… And from there to the whole world.
The Orta grocery store is, without a doubt, a must stop in this town. More than a century and a half of tradition can be seen on its worn walls. The smell of wine barrels and wicker chairs decorate this picturesque tavern full of charm and flavors. I sit in one of its corners, taste an orange wine with some local mackerel, and let myself be seduced by this suggestive space.
The boat awaits us at the pier, it looks like a tired mule. We’ll sail slowly up the river. On each shore a country. Stories and tales about smuggling abound around here. I can imagine the smugglers hiding in the bushes on both banks waiting for the right moment to throw themselves into the river with sacks of tobacco, coffee, salt or medicine. These unsung heroes somehow helped sustain the local economy during the terrible post-war depression. More than one statue in the riverside towns confirms the admiration of the locals for these brave men.