Updated: Jul 16, 2022
Our first visit to southern Spain meant we had a lot of ground to cover, literally and figuratively. For lovers of history, culture, food, and drink, the area known as Andalusia is a smorgasboard of delight; we knew from the outset we'd have to return to see everything of interest. Our choice was to begin by spending four nights in Seville, then move on Cordoba, Granada, and to Madrid for the flight home--a total of about two weeks.
History geeks that we are (how many people read Imperial Spain by J.H. Elliott or Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain by Brian Catlos* prior to traveling to Spain?), we especially were looking forward to hitting some of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Spain. The country ranks 3rd in the world for the most sites, with 49. Most of these are historical or cultural, but several are natural according to UNESCO criteria. * See link to book at bottom of post.
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Where to Day Trip
We decided to use one day as a day trip to somewhere south of Seville.
Our considerations were shaped around our need to travel by train or bus, since we had no car. Among the very doable considerations were Cádiz (one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Western Europe) and Jerez de la Frontera (home to sherry making as well as the famous Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art). Both towns were accessible by rail.
However, we found a highly-rated day trip to Doñana National Park, a UNESCO-designated site for its beautiful wetlands but also for it range of ecosystems that include marshland, mobile sand dunes, cliffs, lagoons, and more. The park is located in the Guadalquivir River Delta region, where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
The park is home to five threatened bird species and hosts over 500,000 waterfowl each winter. The elusive Iberian lynx lives there year-round, as well as red deer, flamingos, and many other species.
Getting to and around Doñana National Park
There are many faces and places to Doñana NP. It encompasses 54,252 hectares or over 209 square miles, spread out in a patchwork of ecosystems. Some of the park is drivable by car, and you can drive up to one of the seven visitor centers, park then walk trails. The bulk of the park requires a 4-wheel drive due to the sandy roads (which look compact, but often are not). There are foot trails in many places, including along the beach area (more on that later). Professional horseback excursions are available that take you to key sections of the pine forest or beach. Many people prefer to book a professional tour for sections of the park, which is what we did.
At this link, each individual visitors center has its own website. Click through to see how accessible each site is. https://www.spain.info/en/nature/donana-national-park/
This link has info regarding access by car, bus, bicycle, and by foot. https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques/donana/guia-visitante/accesos.aspx
Professional Tour We Used
After researching and reading reviews, we decided to take the tour offered by Naturanda.
With an overwhelming number of positive reviews, we hoped it was a safe bet. The very few negative reviews were generally a result of people's unrealistic expectations of always seeing wildlife, especially during the very hot, dry summer season (July or August in particular) or who had issues with the small portion of the trip where we switched to a larger 4-wheel drive vehicle operated by one of the approved providers for the park and the driver spoke only Spanish. (FYI-our Naturanda guide sat in the back with us during that portion of the trip, providing English highlights as needed).
We met our initial group of about 12 at the Naturanda office, a short walk from our hotel in Seville. After boarding a comfortable mini-bus, we proceeded to the first of many stops that would encompass a 10-hour or so trip.
Our guide, Sergio, was an informative and enthusiastic leader who was clearly dedicated to providing a learning experience for us, from pointing out a nesting owl to noting the importance of the beetles fighting over a dung ball. His eyes were always open for evidence of wildlife, chances to explain the impact of climate change, or opportunities to tie in the history of the region to the flora and fauna.
El Acebrón Palace
Our first stop out of Seville was at one of the park's main visitors centers: El Acebrón Palace. The area surrounding the palace has sandy walking trails and boardwalks that wind you through old cork, wild olive, stone pine trees (Pinus pinea --the type that produce edible pine nuts and was brought to the region by the Romans) and a dense riparian forest. The palace itself was built in the early 1960s in the neo-classical style and isn't worth the visit for itself but rather for the historical exhibits about the park, the view from the roof, and (importantly) the restrooms.
First, we did the trails with Sergio, then were left to explore the palace and view from the top.
On our visit in May, more often than not, the floor of the forest was covered in ferns, sprinkled here and there with wildflowers. Sergio often stopped to explain the importance of the area, the impact of certain farming practices and climate change, and to point out various species of flora and fauna. Admittedly, a dozen people tromping through the trail discussing cork trees and asking about wildflower species generally frightened the birds away, but a few patient stragglers managed to see some scrub-robins and we all definitely heard various warblers. More on Andalusian birding here: https://www.donanawings.com/birdwatching-in-andalucia/
My focus was primarily on the plant life. However, I found the dung beetles highly engaging. They were large, both in size and population (in one area), and the battles royale for the choice pieces!
Among the cork, olive, and pine trees was another: the strawberry tree or arbutus unedo. These don't produce the strawberries most of us are familiar with (they are bland) but apparently can ferment and produce an alcohol-effect when eaten (all I can picture are drunk squirrels). There is a Portuguese spirit made from these berries called medronho. If you've had mendronho, let me know what you think about it in the comments. It's a taste I've not yet had.
These trails also allow you to view the main lagoon of the park, a place that manages to retain water even in the driest of summers in Andalucia.
Lunch stop in Matalascañas
On this tour, we stopped for lunch in Matalascañas, a beach resort town that is basically surrounded by Doñana NP. We ate at Casa Matias, which has a lovely outdoor courtyard and indoor bar/restaurant. We made friends with an elderly widow who began solo traveling late in life after the death of her husband. Part of the fun of short professional day trips is getting to know others. It was an inspiration to hear she had been traveling for over a month, staying in a pension (an accommodation between a hostel and a small bed and breakfast). Our service was fast and friendly. I enjoyed a very crispy seafood pancake called tortillitas de camarones. Crispy and delicious, but sometimes I felt as if I was being watched!
One of Doñana NP's iconic ecosystems is its "mobile" dunes, which strangely abut the public resort beaches of Matalascañas. It's a bit startling to walk from the parking lot, past the edge of all the beach umbrellas and restaurants onto a national park preserve.
The dunes are called "mobile" or transitory because they are always moving, taking over the vegetation and sometimes covering boardwalks (where walkways exist). I had a bit of a mobility problem due to recent recovery from a leg problem, sloughing through the very soft sand. Sergio was willing to wait but I'm stubborn, sending others on and working my way. I eventually made it through the soft sand, up the incline, to the more stable boardwalk. The view of the undulating sand and vegetation made a beautiful vista, with peeks of the Atlantic Ocean just beyond.
We boarded our mini-bus and had a quick drive to our next stop: the iconic El Rocio. Resembling a well-dressed western US town (from the old movies) with gravel streets, houses with verandas (basically unoccupied during the weekday), horses, and a pristine white church, it's best known as a pilgrimage site. It's hard to believe it, but this sleepy town of 700 has up to a million people flock to it the weekend prior to Pentacost Monday (April/May). The tour gave us about 30 minutes to walk around, visit the church, see the horses, and/or grab a drink. It is possible to take a ride in a horse carriage, a classic way to see El Rocio since the greater Doñana area is known for wild horses that are rounded up and sold once year.
Next Up: 4-WD, The Open Lands
From El Rocio, it was a short drive to the El Acebuche Visitors Centre where we boarded the larger 4-wheel drive bus that would take us deeper into the park. If you are driving yourself, note that it is a much longer drive from El Rocio to this visitors centre (30 km) but specially-authorized vehicles (like our tour) are permitted a short cut of only 8 km.
Our driver spoke Spanish but for those of us who spoke English, our Naturanda guide was available. We drove through acres of open grazing land, deep thickets of olive trees, and everything in between. The eagle eyes of our guide were quick to find signs of wildlife. A one point in the late afternoon, the bus pulled over for us to observe a tiny owl whose actual name is Little Owl (the Athene noctua, similar to our North American saw-whet owl). It was nesting immediately next to the road, in the remains of a stand of trees amid rocks at the edge of an open field.
Later, we stopped to observe a mother partridge with chicks. We paused on occasion to dismount the bus to look at red deer grazing in the distance in open fields, view purple herons and black kites, with the driver providing some binoculars. Wild horses were prevalent in one part of the park.
José Antonio Valverde Visitor's Centre
We eventually pulled into the José Antonio Valverde Visitor's Centre which offers a nice view through large glass windows of the Aznalcázar marshes and various waterfowl. The building has a small coffee bar, exhibits regarding the park and the various species of birds, and (importantly at this point), restrooms. There is also a nice bird blind and walking trails.
Into Deeper Greenery, In Search Of The Lynx
As we drove into deeper woods, we kept our eyes out for the elusive Iberian lynx, deer, and other birds. At one point, our bus suddenly took off, with the driver exclaiming something in Spanish. We stopped suddenly and many in our group managed to see the lynx crossing the road quickly to disappear into the bush. We were fortunate (actually, my husband was fortunate, but not I), as this does not occur on every excursion.
Doñana by Horseback
As we neared the
end of our tour, we passed families on horseback. There are several outfits working out of El Rocio that offer tours by horseback, including on the beach, in the woods, and at sunset. More info is available here.
Helpful information on the various visitors centres are here, including accessibility of each site: https://www.discoveringdonana.com/donana-info/visitors-centres/
The official Andalucia tourism site, with specifics on how to access the park, the various tour companies, horse trekking tours, and accommodations.
We highly recommend visiting Doñana National Park and particularly this tour. While there is SO much to do in Seville, getting out of the city to visit a UNESCO World Heritage Center that is a natural reserve was a nice way to switch things up. Climate change is having an impact on this national treasure, but it remains a wonder of bio-diversity that is somewhat unique to Europe. It was also much cooler by the water than in the city, which was experiencing a heat wave with unseasonably high temps for mid-May. Just be aware that if you visit in the summer, some areas of Doñana National Park will be dry. With the notable exception of the ocean, the main lagoon is the only place that retains water through the dry season. Extras -- Books and background prep: If you are history buffs like us, you might like this:
See also one of our highlights from Seville-- Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija