The Natural Park of Sierra de Aracena: Quick facts
Geography of the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park
The Natural Park of Sierra de Aracena & Picos de Aroche (official title in Spanish) is located in the far west of the Sierra Morena Mountain range, in the province of Huelva, bordering on the west with the Portuguese region of Alentejo and to the north, with that of Extremadura. It is considered as mid-mountain, with an average altitude of 500 metres, from a north-north west to a south-south east direction. The highest peaks are in the north of the Natural Park, plus those of El Castaño (in Castaño del Robledo) and San Cristóbal (in Almonaster La Real) in the centre.
The Guadiana and Guadalquivir rivers have influenced the terrain, resulting in extensive soil erosion and the formation of a series of valleys that have led to the exposure of large areas of rock in some of the higher areas.
Walking in the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park
The Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is a walker’s paradise. Its stone-walled tracks are reminiscent of country lanes in the UK, although here they are not tarmacked and are generally free of traffic. Many of the paths were either Roman routes or ancient drovers’ tracks, and for this reason connected villages, many of which can be visited en route, with the possibility of a short stop for refreshment and a small snack (of ham, why not?).
Accommodation and gastronomy
The Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is punctuated with small hotels and guest houses, both in the villages and towns, as well as in the countryside. Ibernature sources accommodation with a local taste in order to accentuate the experience.
The regional gastronomy is also delicious and varied: game, goat's cheese, cured meats and, of course, chestnuts prepared in many different ways. Another local culinary product, the wild mushroom, attracts mycology enthusiasts every year who come to events and courses to learn how to recognise these fungi and their properties: they can be savoured throughout the area during the mushroom season. Due to the high density of chestnut trees, this fruit can either be eaten roasted, mixed with honey, or in local puddings.
Humans have been present since prehistoric times. Man originally extracted minerals and carried out hunter-gatherer activities in the area.
There is a high number of hamlets, villages and small towns, dating back to Roman and Arabic times, either for defensive or agricultural reasons. They are: Alajar, Almonaster La Real, Aracena, Aroche, Arroyomolinos de León, Cala, Cañaveral de León, Castaño del Robledo, Corteconcepción, Cortegana, Cortelazor, Cumbres de Enmedio, Cumbres de San Bartolomé, Cumbres Mayores, Encinasola, Fuenteheridos, Galaroza, Higuera de la Sierra, Hinojales, Jabugo, Linares de la Sierra, Los Marines, La Nava, Puerto Moral, Santa Ana La Real, Santa Olalla del Cala, Valdelarco, Zufre.
The high density of chestnut trees has been one of the sources of work and income for the region, as was mining in the outlying areas of the Natural Park.
More recently, its relatively low-lying land and a lack of significant mountains have meant that the natural and cultural heritage of the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is linked to pasturelands for animals and the industries revolving around the processing of animal products. This is particularly the case of Iberian pigs, with the majority of local village economies focused on the pork meat industry.
One of the most memorable impressions felt by visitors to the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is the abundant tree mass: of the 184,000 hectares within the Natural Park, 127,000 are tree-covered, of which the different species belonging to the quercus family amount to 100,000 hectares, or 60% of the Natural Park’s surface. Having said this, there are multiple categories of plants and trees, whose location and growth are characterized by climate, soil quality and human activity.
The primitive tree mass covers a reduced area on the upper slopes of the Natural Park that are furthest from villages and towns. It is home to gall oaks, cork oaks, holm oaks, chestnuts and pines, as well as a dense covering of bush and thicket including wild strawberries plants, laurustinus, Spanish broom, Kermes oak, salvia cistus, lavender, honeysuckle, barberry, gorse, heather and ferns. This would have constituted the general fauna in the area, before the arrival of man.
Meadows and pastureland resulted from the transformation carried out by man’s primitive ancestors on land that would previously have been unproductive and impenetrable. The most productive fruit bearing trees were left, and the remaining vegetation was removed, favouring holm and cork oaks, whose acorns were used to feed livestock and as a consequence, helped the growth of the pork meat industry.
The other two types of vegetation are bushes and thickets, as well as riverine forest. With regard to the latter, human intervention has had a strong influence, although it still plays an important part in the protection of soil and plants from strong sunlight, high temperatures and frost. River banks are dotted with poplar, willow, alder and ash trees.
At a time when the primitive vegetation was widespread throughout the area now covered by the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park, wolves and even bears were abundant, as was the most threatened wild cat in the world, the Iberian lynx: it is believed that there is an extremely limited number of the latter still surviving.
More abundant in modern times, although often very difficult to spot due to the thick vegetation and the nocturnal habits of many land predators present in the Natural Park, are foxes, badgers, weasels, genets, wild cats and pine martens. In rivers and streams, it is a rare privilege to be able to spot otters and river rats. The most numerous representatives of smaller mammals and rodents are shrews, moles, field and dormice.
Larger mammals that are also hunted under controlled conditions are wild boar and deer, as are hares and rabbits, wood pigeons, partridges and thrushes.
With such a wide covering of vegetation, birdlife is abundant and varied in the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park, and includes: black storks, black vultures, Eurasian eagle owls, short-toed eagles, black and red kites, booted eagles, barn and tawny owls, goldfinches, robins, nightingales, hoopoes, cuckoos, nuthatches, kingfishers and golden orioles, amongst others. Indeed, the area has been classified as a Special Bird Protection Zone.
In the rivers and streams, there is a number of species of fish, toads and frogs, as well as salamanders and newts.
Geology in the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is influenced by metamorphic rock and stone. There is an abundance of slate, arising from the compression of sedimentary material, as well as limestone which has led to the creation of marble and other carbonated rock. In the north of the Natural Park, it is common to find granite, large examples of which are easy to spot in the middle of pastureland and chestnut groves.
The Sierra de Aracena Natural Park borders on the Sierra Morena, which stretches from Jaen to Portugal, and has been exploited for thousands of years due to its mineral riches, in particular pyrites.
The climate in the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park is both sub-humid and dry Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and considerable rainfall from autumn through to spring. These contrasts are a direct result of the air currents entering from the Atlantic coast and cooling as they reach the hills and mountains in the Natural Park.
The lack of high terrain results however in a generally mild climate, particularly in winter. The average January daytime temperature in Aracena is 7º, 15º in the nearby hills during May, and climbing to 25º in the outlying villages in August, although maximum temperatures may exceptionally exceed 36º. The best times of year for walking are therefore outside of the summer months. In contrast, the colder weather associated with the period between December and February is ideal for the curing of Iberian hams.
The difference in rainfall is marked, from the 1,200 litres/m2 in the central part of the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park to 800 litres on the outskirts. Some 80% of annual rainfall occurs between October and March, and it is not unknown for an attractive light dusting of snow on the higher peaks.
Water and river systems
Erosion by water flowing over and through the rock in the area has modelled the countryside. The low impermeability of the ground has led to an extensive river system similar to the branches of a tree. There are three major water basins, flowing into the Guadiana, the Guadalquivir and the Odiel rivers, which flow throughout the year: the remaining rivers in the area are practically dry in summer.
Although just outside of the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park, it is worthwhile mentioning the Río Tinto (“Red River”), so called because of the colouring of the water that passes through the famous mining area, picking up a variety of metals in suspension, and whose oxygen level is so low it has been visited by the NASA authorities for investigation into similarities with Mars.