Discovering marvels above and below ground in Huelvas Sierra de Aracena.
For centuries people in the mountain town of Aracena were unaware of the marvel that lay, unsuspected, beneath the very ground they trod. A century ago the town authorities drilled a well and it was then, according to local legend, that a swineherd discovered the entrance to a cave which up to then had been completely flooded.
In 1914 the Gruta de la Maravillas (Cave of Marvels) became the first cave in Spain to be opened to the public, and was also a model in the management of such sites, for the paths and illumination installed caused minimum disturbance to the rock formations. This is a "living" cave that is, it is still being formed and a special team monitors conditions to prevent any threat to this natural treasure. Visitors plunge into the cave on an easily walkable guided itinerary covering three quarters of a mile (about half the caves total length) to marvel at the caves numerous underground lakes and at the striking colours of the rock formations.
The Cave of Marvels is the most visited site in the province of Huelva, but many of todays travellers are attracted to the town by the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains. Aracena is the capital of the 450,000-acre Sierra de Aracena nature park, a mountainous area cloaked in forests of chestnut and oak trees.
In addition to town-based hotels, there are a number of country hostelries catering to nature enthusiasts, such as the Finca Valbono near Aracena, where guests can stay in the main house, with six guest rooms, or in 14 self-catering bungalows dotted around the estate. From here, horse trails and walking tours take travellers within easy reach of the parks attractions.
Aside from the wildlife, which includes eagles, badgers and genet cats, this is also home to the prized Iberian pig. This special breed is let loose to range free in the autumn to forage for acorns, the basis of its diet. The hams from the Iberian pig are salted and left to cure in dark caverns for a year and a half, to become the tasty jamon iberico, a ham fit for princes. The ham from this part of Andalusia is perhaps the most famed in the world.
A good place to sample it is in one of the regions best known restaurants, Jose Vicente, a culinary landmark which specialises in dishes made from fresh Iberico pork. This is also the place to try another delicacy which is found in abundance in the sierras of northern Huelva: wild mushrooms. Thanks to the areas unique microclimate, there are dozens of types of edible fungus growing in the Sierra de Aracena.
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Copyright © 2000 An Andalusian Experience. Text by Mark Little. Photography by J. D. Dallet - A Freelance Spain production
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Copyright © 2000-2006 Mark and David Little & J.D. Dallet