“Phoenician: Onoba”, “Greek: Ὄνοβα”, “Roman: Onoba Aestuaria”, “Arab: Walbah”
An area of high interest I had pending for a long time now, the city of Huelva, the nearby sites of historical importance to the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the “New World”, and the mines of Rio Tinto. All of which within a small distance to each other, yet hard to find a good flight deal before. After all, the nearest airports are either the very expensive Seville, or Faro in Portugal. The later was our option, and so the fastest. A year ago we’ve visited Faro and the entire Algarve region, so now was time to return and do the other side across the border in Spain.
It is only 115 kilometres from Faro to Huelva downtown, and we drove there the following day to our arrival, although we stayed overnight near the border at the Portuguese resort city of Monte Gordo. It’s always better to be rested from the night before as was already late when we landed at night, while also driving in the day light was part of this trip, enjoying the landscapes of the Rio Formosa Natural Park, River Guadiana (natural frontier between Portugal and Spain) and the marshes along the way.
Huelva as a city, is nothing really special. There are not many sights, nor is a touristy city; however, there is way much more in the nearby region, as for example the Columbine sites (one of the reasons why we came here on first instance); and for those interested in the industrial heritage the city is on the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) with its Riotinto Pier on the Odiel River, and the not so far incredible Riotinto Mines (our second reason why we came here). It is just a few hours all you will need to visit the city of Huelva itself, for what you will have plenty of time to get to the historical sites of La Rabida Moanstery, Palos de la Frontera and Moguer all in the same day (later described in the next section).
Without doubt, the highlight of this weekend anyway, was the Riotinto Mines. I’ve never seen some landscapes as in here, nor I’ve been to an open air mine before where you can see that much. It is also the world’s oldest continuously operating mines with over 5000 years of activity. It was the largest silver mine across the Roman Empire. An eerie landscape more appropriate to the surface or Mars. No wonder why its river, the Rio Tinto (hence the name of the mines and the global mining company now behind) it’s been studied by the NASA for its uniqueness and rarity. It’s the only river of its kind in the world, where due to the massive amount of irons, acids and sulphurs it gets such reddish colour. A deadly river where very limited life can live, and this is the same as it has been found on Mars on what are now dry river in its surface.
This place was once so polluted that not even vegetation could grow. It became deserted, no trees on the mountains, but since the closure of the older parts, the ones you can now visit, the recovery and decontamination process are doing wonders, with most of the surroundings now a new forest slowly thriving.
Now if you’re looking to combine this great visit to the mines with something also unique, then select to come here on any first Sunday of the month. Only once a month the museum is taking out the oldest functioning steam locomotive in Spain dating from 1875 for the tours. That we booked this weekend was on purpose to make it, and believe me, it was a great decision to have the full experience. Check the official website here in advance to read through any special events just in case they change the dates, also for the times and prices, and remember to book in advance your tickets. We came here the first Sunday of February, theoretically the lowest season you can, but the mine tour was fully booked.
For more information about Huelva check this Wikipedia site, and this one for Rio Tinto. Spain’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Huelva and in the region:
- City of Huelva Small but nice for a couple of hours visit.
-Rio Tinto Pier An immaculate piece of industrial heritage. Located on the Odiel River, it was where the trains coming from the Riotinto mines full of metals were loaded onto ships from the upper level while empty trains would arrive from the ship back to the track from the lower level. Located towards the south west of the city centre.
-Odiel Train Station Just east of the Rio Tinto Pier, was built in the 19th century in Moorish revival style.
-Gran Teatro On Vazquez Lopez Street, towards the old town core, north from the train station, is the main theatre in the city. Built in eclectic style.
-Plaza de las Monjas The largest square right in the city centre, where one of the pedestrian thoroughfares, Avenue Martín Alonso Pinzón starts.
-La Bola Building In renaissance style, formerly the Hotel Paris, has a golden cupola hence its nickname, “la bola”, the ball.
-Bank of Spain One of the regional headquarters of the bank. Built in 1935 in neoclassical style.
-Convent of Agustinas At one of the corners of the square, opposite from the Bank of Spain.
-La Concepcion Church Few meters west from the Plaza de las Monjas, on the parallel pedestrian street to Martín Alonso Pinzón. Constructed in 1515 with restoration works after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
-Paseo de Santa Fe If continuing towards the north near Conception Church you reach this elegant street heading towards the old Castle.
-Old Market Hall Built in the 20th century, a great piece of industrial architecture.
-Apostle Saint Peter Church At the end of Santa Fe.
-Saint Peter’s Castle The medieval castle traces its origins to the Moors. Not much is there remaining, and it’s closed to visitors.
-Merced Square A bit farther to the north from the Castle, not the nicest since the buildings around it are new, but home to the Cathedral.
-Cathedral Founded in 1605, having to be rebuilt in part after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Combines renaissance and baroque, in a very colonial style.
-Constitution Square Few meters east from Plaza de las Monjas, is the next in importance along the old city centre.
-City Hall Built between 1941 and 1949 in neoclassical lines, its architect gave a final Madrid’s neo-herrerian style so uncommon in Andalusia.
-Jesuit’s Church Right behind the City Hall.
-Former Land Estate Office Opposite the City Hall, completes the square and its architecture also in Madrid’s neo-herrerian style.
-House of Colon At the end of Martín Alonso Pinzón street. Built in 1883 as one of the grandest hotels when the city was booming. Nowadays is the exhibition centre.
- The Christopher Columbus sites This area of Southern Spain near Huelva is of crucial importance to the first voyage of Columbus where he would discover the Americas.
-Friary of La Rábida In the outskirts of the small city of Palos de la Frontera, barely 13km south of Huelva across the Rio Tinto where it meets River Odiel. Founded in 1261 by the Franciscans, the present building dates from the late 14th century. “Christopher Columbus stayed at the friary two years before his famous first voyage, after learning that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had rejected his request for outfitting an expedition in search of the Indies. With the intervention of the guardian of La Rábida and the confessor to Isabella, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, he was able to have his proposal heard.” Here you will also find the Dock of the Caravels, where the reproduction of the 3 caravels that sailed to the New World are on display.
-Palos de la Frontera This small city, north of La Rábida is best known to the historians as being the place from which Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492 on his voyage that would discover the Americas.
-Moguer 11 kilometres north of Palos de la Frontera. From here were natives Niño brothers, who provided the caravel Niña, one of the three that sailed on August 3, 1492 (the others being Pinta and Santa Maria). Moguer was also the place where Columbus spent his first night after returning from the first voyage.
- Rio Tinto Mines The oldest mining complex still in operation in the world in use for over 5000 years. It was the largest silver mine across the Roman Empire. Since the closure of the older sections, a large area have been musealised, buildings retained and restored, and a tourist train runs along some of the section of the once larger line towards Huelva’s Port. The name translates as tint river, this is due to the enormous content of acids, sulfurs and metals, one of the deadliest rivers in the planet. In the small city of Rio Tinto you can visit the main museum, housed in the former hospital, and the Victorian district, while the highlight is the train journey through these landscapes and defunct industrial heritage.
Huelva does not have an airport, however it lies equidistant to both Faro in Portugal and Seville. Faro might be a better option since there are many more flights available through Europe than from Seville, with all the low cost carriers serving the city. From either of the airports you can drive to Huelva in around 1 hour, or take a bus from the arrivals terminal. It is straightforward and inexpensive.
Once in Huelva, due to its reduced size there is no need for taking any public transportation. All the sights lie within easy walking distance to each other, with a very compact old town. However, if your plans include visiting other cities nearby as is Palos de la Frontera and Moguer, the best would be to get a rental car. As for visiting the Minas de Rio Tinto there are daily tours from Huelva, or you can drive to the village of Rio Tinto where you can grab your tickets either for the museums or museums and the tourist train.
Huelva has a good selection of hotels of any kind, however this actually used to be even bigger in the past when the mining activity was so important. Unfortunately, some of the grand hotels that once were through the city centre are no longer hotels but converted to other activities. In any case, it was easy to find a great deal when we checked some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the NH Luz Huelva, in Alameda Sundheim 26. A great location at the south of the city centre, next door to the House of Colon exhibition centre, right by the beginning of the main avenue cutting through the entire historic city east to west, 5 minutes walk from the train station, and 10 minutes away from the Odiel River promenade. Across the road you have a large shopping mall, and plenty of restaurant, bars, pubs and good nightlife all a matter of couple of minutes away. We enjoyed this hotel in every sense. Since we arrived towards the evening, the receptionist was extremely friendly and professional, and gave us a higher floor room with actually nice views over the city. He took our requests at no hesitation (sent prior when we did the booking anyway, but many hotels do not even bother to read the special requests section). The room was fantastic, although a bit dated, the bed was veryr comfortable, spacious, clean and tidy; and extremely quiet at night. The breakfast had a huge choice of everything. We were actually stunned on how well presented everything was, not cluttered, and so easy to visualise, it was perfect. Definitely a high recommendation to anyone.