One of Andalucia’s best-kept secrets is the unique red river in Spain. Running 100 kilometers from Sierra Morena through the Huelva Province, it mouths out in the Atlantic Ocean by Huelva and Cadiz.
The river flows through the old mining settlement of Minas de Rio Tinto where minerals and iron have been extracted from the soil for 5000 years.
The high level of metallic minerals transported by the river in this area combined with acidic waters creates an orangy-red color in the water and makes life in the river near impossible.
For being such a unique site, that even NASA has taken interest in, it is surprisingly one of the most underrated day trips from Seville at only an hour’s drive from Andalucia’s busy capital city.
To help you explore this amazing place in Andalucia, I have put together this complete guide to visit Minas de Rio Tinto and see the red river in Spain with your own eyes.
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About Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto has been an important asset in the transport of copper from Minas de Riotinto in Huelva for centuries. There is evidence that the mines were in use already during Copper and Bronze ages.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, this area was volcanic and a large amount of sulfide ore deposits formed in the soil around the mines. When these metals come in contact with water and oxygen, they create an acidic substance that paints the riverbed and water in an orangy-red color.
This acid has also made the river unwelcoming to most kinds of life. In fact, Huelva’s Rio Tinto is said to have soil similar to what is found on Mars.
It is believed that the natural process of acidification in the area has been intensified by mining activities throughout history. And as mining is still actively executed in the mining town, it is likely to keep pushing sulfide ore into the water.
But the most interesting about Rio Tinto is that astrobiologists have found it useful to study micro-organisms in and around the river as they believe it might help them in finding life on Mars.
From 1873, the mines were operated by the British Rio Tinto Company Limited which left a large mark on Huelva’s history until the 20th century.
Today, you can see old abandoned mining trains and rusty machinery from the glory times around the area.
How to get to Minas de Rio Tinto Huelva
The easiest way to get to Riotinto is to drive there. It only takes an hour from Seville and Huelva. This gives you the freedom to see the different places easily. You can also combine Rio Tinto with an Andalucia road trip exploring places like Aracena and Sierra Norte de Sevilla.
See rental car prices here.
Daily buses leave from Huelva to Rio Tinto and take 1 hour and 45 minutes.
From Seville, there are also buses and the journey takes 1 hour and 50 minutes.
Check bus times and prices here.
If you don’t dispose of a car and want to avoid the hassle of public transport, I can recommend this tour that takes you from Seville to Rio Tinto where you get a tour of the place and then visit the impressive Gruta de la Maravillas, which is one of the most epic things to do in Aracena.
Where to stay in Minas de Rio Tinto Huelva
Riotinto Victorian House – This lovely hotel is situated in a 1930s English house in the village of Minas de Rio Tinto. In the summer months, you can indulge in the outdoor pool and an information desk is there to help you find the best things to do in the area. This is the best place to stay in Rio Tinto, and an especially good option if you don’t drive.
Hotel Vazquez Diaz – Situated in Nerva near Rio Tinto, this is a lovely alternative for those traveling with pets. They also have family rooms and an on-site restaurant.
Things to see and do in Rio Tinto Huelva
See the Red River
First things first. One of the best things to do in Riotinto and most likely the reason why you are there in the first place is to see the red river Spain is hiding in its lesser-visited southwestern province.
There are several places you can see the river and I suggest driving yourself or taking the old mining tourist train which also stops by the river.
Seeing the river is truly spectacular and in my opinion, one of the best things to do in Andalucia!
Learn about mining history in the Riotinto Mining Museum
Situated in what used to be the hospital of Rio Tinto Company Limited, the mining museum takes you on a journey back in time and how the mines have influenced the region through the centuries.
Among other mining artefacts, you can see the reproduction of an ancient Roman mine and waterwheels for pumping water out of the mines.
You can also see the Maharajá Car, a carriage that was built for Queen Victoria of England when she came to visit King Alfonso XIII.
Opening hours Monday to Sunday:
From the 21st of September to the 15th of July: 10:30-15:00 and 16:00-19:00
From the 16th of July to the 20th of September: 10:30-15:00 and 16:00-20:00
Note that opening hours might differ on public holidays.
See Europe’s biggest open pit mine
Corta Atalaya is Europe’s largest open pit mine and one of the largest in the world. It is an incredible 400 meters deep and has a diameter of 1200 meters.
Even though you can’t see the bottom due to the water inside, you get a good grasp of its immense size standing on the edge. Without a wide-angle lens, you won’t even get the whole thing in a photo.
While it was the English that was responsible for its current size due to modern industrial techniques, the pit has been exploited since Roman times. How cool is that?
Peña de Hierro
These mines are where the source of Rio Tinto is and you find the interpretation center there. Daily tours take you through the 200-meter-long tunnels and see the 65-meter deep open pit mine.
Peña de Hierro is situated 10 kilometers outside Minas de Rio Tinto and about 3 kilometers from Nerva. The mine was productive in Roman times, but like the rest of the area, it was first during the British colonization that the mines were truly exploited.
There is a permanent exhibition in the visitor center where you can learn more about the mining history and tradition, and the protected natural area.
Ride the 100-year-old mining train
The railway line was originally built by the Rio Tinto Company Limited to transport materials to and from Huelva’s port. Now, you can ride the old mining trains, whereof two of the oldest steam locomotives in Spain pull the 100-year-old wooden wagons of the Rio Tinto Express.
This is truly one of the most unique things to do in Minas de Rio Tinto, Huelva. As the train bobs down the rail tracks you can take in the unbelievable views of the red river.
You will see the mining activities and stop by the river so that you can get a close-up look at it and snap some pictures. The train ride lasts about 2 hours including stops and covers 12 kilometers of the original 84 kilometer line that goes all the way to Muelle de Rio Tinto in the city of Huelva.
You can pre-book tickets here.
The Bellavista neighborhood
The Bellavista neighborhood is an old English neighborhood where you can still see the opulent Victorian houses where the most important people working for the Rio Tinto Company Limited used to live.
There is one house that is open for visitors, the Casa 21. It is furnished with a typical British interior from the 19th to the 20th centuries and gives you an idea of how wealthy English people would live when the mining industry was thriving in Huelva.
A walk through the streets takes you back in time and you can even see Spain’s oldest tennis courts in Bellavista.
Reflections on visiting Riotinto Huelva
Visiting Riotinto Huelva is truly one of the most unusual things to do in Andalucia. To me, it was totally surreal and though it is a small place and the main things to see are the red river itself and the mining pits, it’s a place I will never forget.
Considering this place has similarities to Mars, a completely different planet that I will never set foot on, makes it even more unbelievable, and in my opinion, it should be on everyone’s Andalucia itinerary!
If you venture off the beaten tourist trail, there are so many cool places to uncover and Minas de Riotinto, Huelva, is truly one of them.