El Rocio is Spain’s strangest town. Nestled on the edge of the wild lagoons and marshes of Doñana National Park, the town looks like a film set from a spaghetti western.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that cowboy Clint Eastwood might emerge from one of its taverns, unhitch his horse and ride off down the town’s dusty streets.
This is the place where the wild west of Spain gets wilder… where you’ll discover a strange history of pilgrimages, brotherhoods and wild horses. This is a place like no other you’ve visited in southern Spain.
The Wild West
Driving into El Rocio is a weird and slightly disconcerting experience. It has an eerie quality, but it’s the jolt you get from driving down its streets that provides your first wake up call.
Bump, crunch, bang… that’s the sound of the hire car’s suspension bouncing along the unpaved roads, surrounded by clouds of dust as it leaves the tarmacked dual carriageway into the town.
It’s not long before you realise that a four-legged animal would be a far more appropriate form of transport.
The sandy roads of El Rocio have few street signs, no road markings and no traffic lights. You’re as likely to come nose to nose with a horse-drawn carriage or a pony as another vehicle.
The rules of the road seem to be more flexible and chaotic here. Who knows who has right of way or which side of the road to drive along. It’s a bit of a lottery.
Horse drawn carriages are popular with the locals and you’ll see them trotting around the streets going about their business throughout the day. There are wooden hitching rails outside most buildings so people can tie up their horses. It’s easier than parking a car.
Look out for the signs saying “Reservado Caballos” – reserved for horses – which is useful if you fancy having a drink or dinner at a nearby bar and leaving the horse outside.
At the back-end of town, you’ll discover large stables and equestrian training rings. I was fascinated to watch a horseman training his young mare in a trotting circle. Welcome to the wild west.
There’s no doubt that El Rocio has bags of atmosphere. It looks like a throwback to a Hollywood western – The Unforgiven, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or A Fistful of Dollars.
It’s a place where the 21st Century never quite arrived. The white-painted houses with their ornate balconies look like they been shuttered-up in anticipation of something strange or apocalyptic happening.
There are few people to be seen beyond the main street and square, and a ghostly air pervades much of the town.
So why bother visiting this quiet backwater?
One of the main reasons for coming here is the wildlife. El Rocio is the closest stop-off town for travellers visiting the Coto de Donana National Park, one of Spain’s last great wilderness areas and a stronghold of the threatened Iberian lynx.
The wetlands surrounding the village provide a superb natural wilderness for nature and are the perfect home for shy creatures like lynx, wild boar, flamingoes and deer.
The other major reason for visiting El Rocio is the annual pilgrimage at Pentecost. The Romería Del Rocío is one of Spain’s biggest festivals when this small town’s population swells from 700 people to something four times the size of Glastonbury.
Nearly a million people descend on the town to honour the saint and enjoy the party atmosphere. I’ve been told that it can get pretty insane and hedonistic with lots of drunken behaviour more appropriate to a clubbing weekend or stag night in Ibiza.
The fiesta’s fame has grown to such an extent that the event is even broadcast on Spanish TV.
Spain’s Greatest Pilgrimage
But how did a small town’s pilgrimage grow into an epic event of huge proportions?
The story of the pilgrimage dates back to the 13th Century when a local shepherd discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary, La Virgen El Rocío, in a tree trunk. The wooden figure is believed by its followers to cure infertility, mental disorders and other diseases.
Naturally, a shrine was built and this became the site of miraculous healings and events. In 1653, the nearby village of Almonte proclaimed that the saint had saved the town from the plague.
Over the centuries, word spread about the shrine and the miracles and – like Lourdes – more and more pilgrims came to visit. It was the start of a massive surge in numbers which was fuelled further by the growth of visitors from ‘brotherhoods’.
After a little research, I discovered that 95 brotherhoods or ‘hermandades’ make the annual journey to El Rocio from across Spain.
It began to dawn on me that the empty houses in the quiet areas of town are the bases for the brotherhoods’ yearly trip.
Each has its town or city of origin above the doorway – Triana, Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, Pilas and many more besides. These impressively large buildings accommodate the pilgrims, known as ‘rocieros’ for the duration of the festival. For the rest of the year, they remain largely empty, apart from the cleaning staff and caretakers.
But what should we make of the whole brotherhood movement? They sound like masonic groups but the truth is more complex and their history goes back centuries.
The Senior Brotherhood of El Rocío was a Catholic group which formed in 1653 during the year that the first pilgrimage to the saint took place.
Many associate groups were formed in the 18th Century, and joined their El Rocio neighbours on the pilgrimages… followed by an explosion of brotherhoods from further afield in Andalucia and the rest of Spain.
By now, I was realising how truly weird this place is… and wondered how a small town can be largely empty for 360 days of the year! The brotherhoods are not without controversy as they have bought up much of the property, sending house prices in El Rocio spiralling. In fairness, they do keep the properties in an immaculate state, even if some streets look like a ghost town.
During the festival, the chaplains of the brotherhoods attend mass and then go in procession to the Plaza de Doñana where a Salve Solemne is sung.
The next day sees the procession of the Virgen del Rocío during which the image of the saint is carried through the streets on the shoulders of local people.
The brotherhoods compete with each other to carry the virgin or ‘White Dove’ on the final part of the procession before she is returned to the shrine.
The procession is accompanied by huge crowds chanting, clapping, beating drums and playing musical instruments. There are fireworks and fire crackers whilst parties break out spontaneously on the town’s streets.
It must be quite a sight, although trying to get a good view of the festivities on the day must be almost impossible unless you’re at the front of the action. I can only imagine that it’s a bit like trying to get into the mosh pit at Glastonbury.
The most common way to make the pilgrimage is on horseback in one of the carretas (decorated wagons) or on foot, travelling through the marshes and sleeping out in the open. Remind me to book my camp site for 2018’s big event before the big land grab!
El Rocio highlights
If you can’t visit El Rocio at festival time, it’s still well worth a trip. I came for the wildlife and it was purely by accident that I discovered the pilgrimage and festival.
The shrine to the saint can now be seen in the enormous white church which dominates the main square in the town – the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora.
It’s unclear how much of the figure is original but it’s thought that the head is the oldest part that’s left whilst other bits have been hacked off and replaced by new sections.
Although the church looks Gothic from the outside, it isn’t very old, although its origins date back to 1270 when the first shrine was built by Alfonso X “the Wise” after taking this area of Spain from the Arabs.
The original building was built in the Mudejar style but didn’t survive and the old church collapsed in the 18th Century. The current church was rebuilt in the 1960s following an earthquake but looks like an authentic replica of a much older building.
The altarpiece is enormous, decorated in brightly-shining gold and gilt with biblical figures and angels hanging from every corner. Walk over the road and you’ll discover a small chapel where you can light a candle or simply soak up the spiritual atmosphere.
To discover more about the village and the pilgrimage, there’s a tiny historical museum on the edge of the town with a few moderately interesting displays.
In the dead centre of El Rocio – quite literally (it’s deserted) – you’ll discover a monument to the pilgrims who come by horse and wagon train to the annual festival wearing their traditional costumes.
For me, the biggest reason for visiting El Rocio is its world-class wildlife reserve. The Doñana National Park is an internationally important wetland area characterised by marshes, shallow streams and sand flats.
I’d recommend taking the half day trip to the centre of the reserve with an official guide. Not only are you guaranteed to see a breathtaking selection of birds and animals, this is the closest you’ll get to the wildlife.
There’s no car or pedestrian access to the main heart of the nature reserve – this is to protect its habitats and the rare species which live there including the Iberian lynx. The only public access is across a small strip of land on the edge of the lagoon closest to El Rocio and at a couple of designated bird hides.
Although I didn’t see the big cats on the off road trip, I was reliably informed that the tour group before ours saw a pair of the animals at close range. Just my luck to miss that moment of a life time!
Look out for my fuller blog post on Doñana National Park coming soon.
We arrived back in El Rocio after the four-hour trip on the wildlife tour bus which bumped its way across the unpaved roads crossing the park. It had been a mini adventure and reminded me of a safari with the rickety old, but comfortable bus bouncing up and down along the rutted tracks.
The sun had started to set and a mystic light fell across the lagoon with the silhouettes of flamingoes and wild horses fading in the distance.
The lights of the town were coming on and there was just time to take a final walk around town and look at the shops, perhaps to grab a costume for next year’s festival.
This flamenco combo caught my eye… I was pretty keen on the frilly blouse and matching hat not to mention the cascading skirt. Everyone dresses in traditional Andalusian outfits during the El Rocio festival and this would certainly hit the mark.
When night falls, the town takes on a mysterious air and the illuminated church at the heart of El Rocio shines out like a beacon. El Rocio looks even more quaint with its tiny street lamps and dimly lit walkways.
Spending a day in El Rocio is like visiting another planet. This is definitely not a one horse town – it has hundreds of our four-legged friends including large numbers of wild ponies which are specially adapted to living on the marshes.
It’s a very strange place with a weird wilderness landscape, but I’d recommend it to anyone, although next time I’ll get myself a trusty horse and ride down its dusty streets!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – El Rocio, Andalucia
El Rocio is located in western Andalucia, Spain – it’s an easy hour-long drive west of Seville along the A49 to Huelva.
Festival of the Virgin
The Festival of the saint takes place on Pentecost Monday every year. Forthcoming dates for your diary include:
5 June 2017
21 May 2018
10 June 2019
1 June 2020
During the festival, hotel accommodation is a nightmare – it’s impossible to find availability and the prices are sky-high . Many visitors camp out in the fields on the edge of the village and along the fringes of the surrounding Doñana National Park. Expect a bit of a bun fight for the best spots.
Wildlife and Donana National Park
For wildlife tours, book ahead, preferably online, as places are limited. The tours start from outside the Hospederia Puente del Rey where you’ll also find the information office and ticket desk. Many of the tours are in English and Spanish – and cost £25. Binoculars are provided. Allow plenty of time for the tour as it takes over four hours.
Why not go horse riding or hire a horse and carriage? This is one of the equestrian companies which runs them from El Rocio.
There are a small number of hotels providing decent quality accommodation including the larger Hotel Toruno, The Malvasia, the Pequero Rocio and the Hospederia Puente del Rey
Motor home and camper van travellers will be delighted to hear that there’s an unofficial wild camping site/aire on the edge of El Rocio behind the tourist information kiosk opposite the Hospederia Puente del Rey
There’s a decent number of cafes and restaurants in El Rocio, although not all of them open in low season and many close slightly earlier than usual in Andalucia. I can recommend the Toruno for a solid quality evening meal – and the view over the lagoon from the main dining room is great.
Where we stayed: I stayed at the Pequero Rocio Hotel off the main road into El Rocio. It has shades of faded glory but it’s a striking building and has bags of character. The cottage suites are a real bargain, if you like traditional style rooms.
The cottages are slightly twee but offer spacious accommodation, especially for families looking for good value rooms with breakfast.
It’s worth sitting in the hotel garden where you’ll see a great variety of wildlife including birds like brightly-coloured hoopoe and siskin.