Flamingos in the Wild West

Our final stop in southern Spain, the town of El Rocio, turned out to be one of the strangest places we’ve ever seen. It’s sized to hold tens of thousands of people, but it has only about 600 residents. The streets are wide (think four-lane-highway wide) but made of sand.

Lining them are low white rowhouses, each with a covered porch and a hitching rail out front, and grander buildings (with bell towers) built by hermandades (religious lodges or clubs) from towns around Spain. Most of the buildings in town are only occupied a few days a year—around Pentecost—when the town swells with pilgrims who arrive on horseback or in ox-drawn carts to honor the local image of the Virgin Mary and have a fiesta. The rest of the time, El Rocio feels like a big, empty, sandy, Western stage set.

In most towns, once you get off the bus, you can find your lodging by checking a city map at the tourist office, or looking for signs (if the town is small), or catching a taxi. In El Rocio, we found our hostal by using a compass and binoculars. (The only directions we had were half a kilometer north of the church, so we needed the compass to find north, and the binoculars let us peer down the long streets for signs without having to trudge farther through the sand in the mid-day sun.)

El Rocio is a town geared toward horses. Most of the rowhouses have stables in the back, and horse people come here for vacations, to canter along the sandy streets and ride through the nearby pine woods. We saw some beautiful horses in our two days there. (Melissa was left wondering whether we’d be better off spending our travel money to buy a couple of them and see the world on horseback.)

The town keeps its streets unpaved for the sake of horses

The town’s main draw for us was that it sits next to a marsh on the edge of Donana National Park. Donana, one of the biggest wetlands left in Europe, is a big estuary northwest of Cadiz that is a major stopping point for migrating birds, especially those crossing between Europe and Africa at the Straits of Gibraltar (the narrowest point).

Before we’d even left the waterside benches in town, we’d seen gray herons, white egrets, glossy ibis, huge black and white storks, spoonbills (which resemble big white herons with long, black, spoon-shaped bills), sandpiper-like stilts, and ┬ánumerous ducks. Most exotic of all, there was a flock of flamingos hunting in the shallow water—something we hadn’t expected to see until we reached East Africa or South America.

Outside Pentecost, there are only two things to see in El Rocio itself: the huge white church housing the famous Virgin del Rocio in an impressive golden altar, and the “grandfather tree,” a 1,000-year-old wild olive tree in front of the Toruno Restaurante. You can knock both of those off in an hour, leaving the rest of your time free for walks and wildlife and guided tours into the national park.

We walked south down the highway to the nearest park visitor’s center, which has a great boardwalk trail through pine woods, ferns, and flooded forests. It was the first time we’d walked in the woods in our two months of traveling. (The pines are Italian stone pines, which are the kind that produce pine nuts, so we got a little foretaste of Italy.)

We also took a guided tour by jeep along the edge of the park (woodland, scrub, and meadow) and saw tons of raptors. (I love raptors!) There were several kinds of kites and a nesting pair of Spanish Imperial eagles (one of only 50 pairs left). Also saw red deer and fallow deer, but no Iberian lynx (the park is known for being one of their last two home ranges) or wild boar. A very successful day.

As our final taste of southern Spain before we head over to Italy, it wasn’t a typical one. It felt more like Latin America than like Spain. But between all of the places we’ve been in Andalucia, we’ve encountered a wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems and building styles and local traditions, which is what we love about traveling.

The church of Santa Maria del Rocio, a huge pilgrimage center, reflected in one of the marshes common in this area, next to Donana National Park

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