Huelva´s sierra is not just a beautiful place to live, it is also an unspoiled, natural protected space expanding 460,000 acres and 28 municipalities. The Parque Natural de Aracena and Picos de Aroche is covered with gorgeous woodlands and far-reaching views of soft, rolling hillsides and crystal clear streams. The landscape is full of contrasts, and the forests give way, here and there, to small groves of olives or walnuts and to orchards of apples, plums, peaches and figs. It also host a rich and varied wildlife with plenty of chances to spot birds of prey or hearing woodpeckers in spring.
Apart from the breathtaking natural scene and the beauty of the white villages, the park and the sierra are defined also by the hiking trail scene, the heritage of the castles, the culture of water and the gastronomy around the Iberian pig.
With an extensive network of footpaths and centuries-old drovers’ tracks, many now signposted and marked on walking maps, it’s easy to explore the Sierra on foot. With many walks in the central part of the Sierra, you don’t have to go far to reach the next village and there are lots of circular routes.
In the middle ages, this region was the setting for many frontier battles with neighboring Portugal. The historical legacy of those armed conflicts has been preserved in the form of numerous fortresses –Moorish and Christian– that comprise the so called “Galician Strip”. There is a “Castles Route” that can be taken any time of the year and includes castles in the towns of Aroche, Cortegana, Almonaster la Real, Encinasola, Cumbres de San Bartolomé, Cumbres Mayores, Cala, Santa Olalla de Cala, Zufre and Aracena.
Water shapes landscapes and life in the Sierra through its streams, falls, rivers, lagoons and dams. In every single town you find one or more public fountains of pure, crystalline water reminding locals and visitors the simplicity and essence of the things that make life possible.
The Sierra is also famous for its rearing of black Iberian pigs and these can be seen everywhere, particularly under holm oak trees where they search for the acorns that give their ham its distinctive quality. Factories for curing the renowned jamón Ibéricoare dotted all over the area, and a whole gastronomical movement around this product has evolved in the last years, with a strong emphasis on exploring new flavors while keeping a strict respect for tradition and fully natural processes.
Aracena, the largest town in the Park, is dominated by a hilltop ruined castle and church built over an old mosque. Its population has grown rapidly in recent years, but it has managed to retain a dignified elegance about its streets.
It has a perfect size, a little country town, so not remotely intimidating, yet big enough to offer some excellent restaurants and tapas bars, refined shops and, of course, plenty of Iberico produce outlets.
Churches, beautiful squares and monuments aside, Aracena is also famous by the Cave of the Marvels (Gruta de las Maravillas), a network of limestone caverns, subterranean lakes, striking colors, cathedral-like chambers and exquisitely adorned stalagmites and stalactites.Its surreal beauty has served as the backdrop for a few Hollywood productions.
Cortegana’s castle dominates the skyline from miles around and is particularly dramatic with the sunset behind it. The castle also offers one of the best views of the Sierra and is a good introduction to the town nestling beneath it.
Like the castles at Aroche and Cumbres Mayores, the one in Cortegana was built in 1293 under Sancho IV, as part of the defensive line of fortifications –the Galician Strip–, to warn of a Portuguese incursion. This relatively compact castle has been heavily restored and its interior is embellished with suits of armour and heavy, medieval-looking furniture.
The castle, its hilltop and the streets leading up to it are the ideal location for a four-day Medieval Festival held at the end of August. Highlights include jousting tournaments and a spectacular re-enactment of the battle between the Moors and Christians, as well as a large atmospheric market, bars, music and singing.
One of the prettiest villages in the Sierra, Alájar is overlooked by the towering Peña de Arias Montano, a dramatic rocky outcrop with a church and belfry. From the Peña is a stunning view of Alájar, its fields of olive trees and the gently undulating plain south of the Sierra.
The houses in Alájar huddle around a tiny paseo (square) and its narrow, cobbled streets radiate outwards from here. Like the neighbouring village of Linares, many houses in Alájar have their own unique cobbled portals. There are many well-preserved houses here with architectural elements typical of the Sierra. The village has a large church, the 16th-century Iglesia de San Marcos, its size a reflection of the large population that lived here in the 18th century when the church was enlarged.
Zufre, in the eastern side of the sierra is one of the villages at a highest altitude, so winters are rainier and it´s the best candidate to see some snow from time to time. Still, winter low temperature averages are around fifty and during summer the highs are around 77.
That altitude provides breathtaking views of the sierra, with the Zufre dam in the background. Now a quiet little village, Zufre was an important enclave in medieval times because its proximity to Seville, and its walls gave shelter to neighboring populations when successive enemies attacked. The Moorish print is still visible in the town hall building and the Purisima Concepción temple, built over an old mosque.
Nature is exuberant around Zufre, and bird watching is a major attraction, as it is the farmers market, held the first Saturday of each month and the perfect showcase for the sierra´s wealth in ecological produce of all kinds.
Tucked away on the southwestern edge of the park is Almonaster, one of the most quaint villages of the Sierra. It has a magnificent hilltop mosque dating from the 10th century situated in amongst the ruins of a castle.
The mezquita’s mihrab, the prayer niche facing Mecca, is the oldest example of its kind in Spain. Inside the well-restored interior are five naves, the mihrab and many arches supporting the ceiling. Examples of many different building stages, some dating from Roman and Visigoth eras, remain.
The narrow, quiet cobbled streets are lined with small houses and their distinctive protruding casement windows. Bright bougainvillea cascades down whitewashed walls making this one of the most picturesque villages in the Sierra. You can walk or drive up the second highest point of the Sierra, the Cerro de San Cristóbal (917m), for some of the best panoramic views in the area.
Almonaster is famous for its Cruces de Mayo festival during the first week in May. Women wear traditional Serrano dresses that are brightly coloured and carry big bouquets of flowers.
The village’s tiny paseo and mezquita is the perfect setting for an atmospheric four-day Islamic festival held in October, with stalls, music and performances.