Guide to Sierra de Aracena
The Natural Park of Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche is in the most westerly part of Andalucía, in the province of Huelva. Here the landscape is of green woodlands, mountain streams and pretty white villages. Sevilla is little more than an hour’s drive away so it’s surprising that this region is almost unheard of outside Andalucía. With surprises at every turn—Templar castles, caves, fiestas and gastronomical delights—this corner of Andalucía is uniquely beautiful and wholly original.
Untouched and waiting to be discovered
The Sierra de Aracena is well off the beaten tourist track, a land of broad-leaved forests and green mountains.
This green and beautiful region is situated in the most westerly part of Andalucía, in the province of Huelva. Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche is a designated Natural Park at the western end of the long Sierra Morena, the wild mountain range which border s northern Andalucía with the autonomous regions Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha.
The Natural Park of Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche is a landscape full of forests, streams, gentle hills and mountain peaks. Although Sierra de Aracena is seemingly remote and untouched by tourists, the capital city of Andalucia—Sevilla (with its international airport), is little more than an hour’s direct drive away. It’s a wonder that the Sierra de Aracena and its pretty white towns are almost unheard of outside of Andalucía.
The forests here are mostly made up of different species of oak trees—holm oaks, gall oaks and cork oaks as well as chestnut and eucalyptus. The mountains give rise to a damper microclimate than the drier, hotter interior of Extremadura and ensure that the land stays lush and green. The Sierra de Aracena is home to the rare lynx, black vulture and golden eagle, as well as a many other species of interesting wildlife. The domestic animal reigning supreme in this region though is the black Iberian pig, herds of which are allowed to roam freely, feeding on the acorns on the forest floor. The animals are raised to make the famous ‘jamón ibérico’ the gastronomic treat of cured ham ‘jamón serrano’. Ham made from these black pigs, the ‘pata negra’, is considered the most superior of this delicacy. Two villages in Spain compete for the crown of making the best dry-cured hams— Trevélez in Sierra Nevada, and Jabugo, here in Sierra de Aracena.
In the footsteps of the Knights Templar
The region is full of interesting sights to see. Marvellous caves and Templar castles are just a couple of surprises you'll find here.
Aracena itself is a picturesque town, the largest municipality in the Natural Park. The castle which dominates the skyline of Aracena was built by the Knights Templar on a 9th century Moorish fortress, and it uses the minaret of the original fortress in its church tower. The control of the Knights Templar was strong in this region as grateful Castilian and Portuguese rulers ceded territory to the Order once the influence of the Moors began to decrease. It is believed that the Templars were also responsible for starting the construction of the 14th century town church, the Iglesia Señora del Mayor Dolor.
Underneath the castle is a system of caves buried 100m deep in the limestone. The Gruta de las Maravillas, or Cave of Wonders, is a spectacular attraction. The extensive cave system of underground lakes and rock formations offer the visitor a 1 km tour of amazing chambers and galleries, all sympathetically lit to show off the beauty of the stone and water.
Particularly special is the Salon de la Cristalería de Dios ‘The chamber of God’s glassware’ with its twinkling stalactites reflecting in the crystal clear waters. These caves in 1914 were the first in Spain to be open to the public. Other sites of interest in Aracena include an open-air modern art sculpture museum—Museo al Aire Libre de Escultura Contemporanea and a museum celebrating the jamón and its production—Museo de Jamón. The original town hall is now an information centre for the Natural Park of Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.
If you want to taste the famous jamón serrano, then you need to visit the very centre of its production, the town of Jabugo. Although a small town, its reputation is international for the quality of its hams and sausages all made from those free-range, acorn-fed black pigs. Whether it’s the acorns, or whether they’ve lived a free and happy life, the taste and texture of the ham is worth every penny.
Walks in a beautiful wilderness
The region is wonderful for days out hiking, especially in spring and autumn.
Alájar is a little over 12 kms from Aracena but takes in some beautiful woodland hiking through cork oak forests via the village of Linares de la Sierra. Alájar is a pretty village with its Peña Arias Montano, a big rocky escarpment north of Alájar with views of the stunning landscape. Castaño del Robledo is a small village selling locally made meat products and, as its name suggests, is surrounded by chestnut woodlands. The colours of the leaves, along with the mild sunny weather, make hiking in autumn particularly pleasurable. All around the Sierra de Aracena are beautiful walking trails, many circular, which include atmospheric old villages and sites of archaeological interest along the way.
Bronze Age settlement near the attractive old town of Aroche is evidenced by Las Piedras del Diablo, the Devil’s Stones. These stones are dolmens from the times of the Celt-Iberians and the town remained of importance to the Romans who built an amphitheatre and minted coins here. Today Aroche has a cottage industry of horse saddles and an information centre about the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park in its 11th century castle, Castillo de las Armas.
Another village with a medieval castle is Cortegana. Its 13th century castle also houses an information centre, but with a focus on the history and development of fortifications throughout the region. It has two churches of interest—the 16th century Iglesia del Salvador and Iglesia de San Sebastian. Cortegana specialises in ceramics and cork products which make good souvenirs from this busy little town.
For a cultural experience it’s always fun to join in a local fiesta. In Almonaster la Real, another picturesque village, rich with Hispano-Moorish architecture, an important cultural event is the Cruces de Mayo (May Crosses) festival. This is held on the weekend of the first Sunday in May, and is an ancient festival celebrated since time immemorial. Floral decorations and traditional costumes abound and everyone is invited to this giant party with music and dancing which lasts from Saturday to the following Tuesday. Almonaster la Real has a 10th century mosque ‘mezquite’ which is well preserved and is a rare example of Moorish remains to be found in this part of Andalucía.
The land of jamon iberico
The richness of the woodlands and their acorns fattens the black pigs for which this region is famous.
The Rio Tinto River and Mines are now an educational theme park which is well worth a visit. On the tour you can board an old-fashioned, narrow gauge locomotive which takes you along the edge of the river and the now disused open-cast mining area. The Rio Tinto is the most acidic river in the world. It takes the name from its red colour, red because of the concentrated minerals which have been mined here for more than 5,000 years. The river rises in the Sierra Morena and continues its way down through the Province of Huelva carrying with it deposits of iron, copper, and in the past, silver and gold.
An open cast mine may not sound like a picturesque place to visit, but it is an interesting historical site and hard to believe that it’s only half an hour’s drive from the cork-oak forests of Aracena.
British miners came to Rio Tinto in the 19th century with technology and investment, exploiting the rich copper deposits and building their own township along the way. A British Victorian cemetery, miners’ homes and their social club can be seen today. It is said that these miners brought soccer to Spain, building the first football pitch here along with a golf course.
While Sierra de Aracena is particularly suited to those who like exploring the natural world, as well as experiencing traditional aspects of Spanish life, there are marvellous surprises here where least expected. Templar castles, caves, fiestas and gastronomical delights—this, as yet undiscovered, region of Andalucía is uniquely beautiful and wholly original.
Photos on this page courtesy of Leandro Martinez del Rio, Enric Rubio Ros, Juantiagues, Jose Mari de Barba, Gert Mewes, Mafresno, Dan, Jose Antonio Contreras, Matias, Jose Manuel Paredes Saavedra, Jennifer Woodard, Rubem Porto, Steve Slater, Phillip Capper, HHHAlberto, Enrico Razzenti, Robert Pt and Julen Irurbe Ormaetxe.