Santa Elena

The staute to Carlos III in Santa Elena  © Michelle Chaplow
The staute to Carlos III in Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena is the closest town to the Despeñaperros Pass, famously termed the “Gateway to Andalusia”. It is also the most northerly village in Jaén province (and Andalusia) when leaving or arriving in the region on the A-4 Madrid motorway. The town overlooks the site of the Battle of Navas de Toloso and is one of the least agricultural municipalities of Andalusia, with only 1% of land farmed; the economy is instead based on mountain activities such as forestry, mushroom-gathering and pig-rearing. It has about 890 inhabitants.


The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as evidenced by 5,000-year-old local cave paintings, which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Unfortunately, these paintings in Cueva de los Escolares have suffered serious damage. In the time of the Iberians, one of area’s great centres of worship, the Collado de los Jardines Sanctuary, was located in the vicinity of Santa Elena, in which a large number of Iberian votive offerings (small statuettes offered to the gods) appeared. More>


The A4 Autovia de Andalucia passes close by the town. Leave the A4 at km 258, enter the village and head first for the main square.

If you're not in a hurry, take the quiet, old, windy road (J-6110) through Despeñaperros. If heading north, leave the A4 at km 256; at km 250 the old road crosses under the motorway and hangs on the west side of the gorge. Look out for the small lay-by and viewpoint you can climb up to. There is also a café with a wonderful viewing terrace at the back and a small tourist office kiosk, whose opening times are unpredictable.  

If travelling south from Madrid, leave the A4 at km 243 by the roadside hamlet Venta de Cardenas (the last in Castilla La Mancha), where there are some shops, hostals and restaurants and even a roadside "driver's" church which dates from 1971 called Iglesia del Conductor Maria Reina.

Hotels in Santa Elena

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Main sights

The main plaza, which was the original village square, is now called Plaza de la Constitucion. Apart from the villagers' houses, there were three principal buildings: 'La Casa de Consejo' (Local Council building), the granary and the church. Now there is also a post office.

Iglesia de la Emperatriz Santa Elena

This colonial-style church dates from 1793 the period when the Nuevas Poblaciones were founded in this area, including La Carolina. It was built on the site of the original chapel, erected by order of King Alfonso VIII to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 - the chapel housed trophies from the battle. On the church wall you can see a bas-relief sandstone tablet commissioned by King Charles IV some years after the new church was built, to ensure the old chapel and the reason for its existence would not be forgotten. (Location)

Antiguo Pósito Labradores - Granary

During the colonisation of the area (see La Carolina) the 1768 Agricultural Reform Bill for Andalucia stated that each northern European settler family receive a house with 33 hectares of land, as well as livestock, crops and equipment: a pig, six hens and a rooster, 20 fanegas (1100 litres) of wheat, six fanegas of barley, a wild hoe, a slim hoe, a plough, and two allotment patches, plus a range of social services. (Location)


In the original building, the local policeman and his family lived on the ground floor, above were municipal offices, and at the rear was the jail. It was rebuilt in 1991, retaining the facades to the plaza and Jaen Street; the metal bell assembly is a modern recreation of the original design. The building still houses municipal offices and a post office. The magistrates' court has been moved to a different building. (Location)

Statue of Charles III

In the centre of the square is a modern bronze statue of King Carlos III, the founder of the 18th-century new towns of the Sierra Morena. See history of La Carolina.

Ermita de la Veracruz

During the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, it was considered a Miracle that the cross, carried in the vanguard in combat by the canon Don Domingo Pascual de Almoguera accompanied by a small escort of Knights, was not captured or destroyed by the Arabs . For this reason, the hermitage was built in honor of Santa Veracruz. Location.


The town has a small bullring on the eastern side which can be visited. Lengths of steel railway lines have been used to support the terrace.


To the west of the village is the site of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and visitors' centres for both the battle, and the Despeñaperros Natural Park.

Museo Batalla de las Navas de Tolosa 1212

The Museum of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa presents, in an original and educational way, the historical events of a battle that changed the course of history. Its six rooms use modern audiovisual media and numerous period sets to exhibit different aspects of the transcendental confrontation: from the caravans of contingents, to the camps of both armies, through to the reproduction of weapons and clothing. Location.

Cueva de los Muñecos

The cave known as Cueva de los Muñecos is located in one of the most rugged spots in the Sierra Morena, within the Despeñaperros Natural Park. It sits in a ravine between huge blocks of stone, where several caves have been excavated, the largest of which, about 50m deep, would probably form the limit of a sacred enclosure. Location.

Castillo de Castro Ferral

The only remains of this castle are a rammed earth tower built by the Muslims prior to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. In 1169, this castle was conquered by Calatravo Knights commanded by Fernando de Icaza, second Master of the Order. However, prior to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the fortress had returned to Moorish control. The castle would star in several acts of arms during the military campaign that concluded with the Christian triumph of Las Navas Location.

Escuela de Naturaleza Las Nogueras

The school complex is situated in the beautiful heart of the Natural Park and provides opportunities for environmental education, rural tourism and recreation. The activities on offer here include hiking, workshops in nature, bread and perfume, horse riding, fruit orchards, a zip line, sports, gymkhanas, cooperative games, climbing, archery, swimming, cultural visits and mountain cycling. Location.

Collado de los Jardines

On the J6110 local road near to Aldeaquemada at km 6,3 (38.38N and -3.50W) you can find the historic Iberian Sanctuario Iberico del Collado de los Jardines in a cave now called "Cueva de los Munecos" (dolls' cave) This place was used for worship until the fourth century AD. The ancient burial remains were excavated in 1916.

El Empedraillo

There are also sections of the original Roman cobbled road which was part of Via Hercules linking Castuelo (Linares) with Toledo.

Natural Areas

To the north of Santa Elena is the Natural Park of Despeñaperros, named after the mountain pass.

Los Organos is a natural monument in the Despeñaperros gorge - a cliff face where the vertical rock structure rocks resemble organ pipes. They can be seen from the mirador on the old road (see orientation above). The new motorway is tunnelled under this rock.  


There is a camp site with swimming pool in the north-east of the village, offering easy access to the motorway.


There are various bus services from Santa Elena. More>


These include the Romería de San Isidro on 15 May, and the Fiestas Patronales in honour of Santa Elena on 18 August. Other ones are La Candelaria and the Carnaval in February.


There is a tourist information kiosk, Los Jardinillos, by the cafe on the old road at km246 of the A7 (unpredictable opening hours).

Just to the west of the town, at A7 exit 257, is Puerta de Andalucia visitors' centre, with free WIFI, restaurant, a shop selling DO iberico products, and a specialist olive oil store with an impressive selection of DO products from four provinces in Andalucia - Jaen, Malaga, Sevilla and Granada.

Also nearby is the museum dedicated to the Battle de las Naves de Tolosa.

On the J6110 local road to Aldeaquemada at km 6.3 is the Visitors Centre for the natural park of Despeñaperros.

Villages Nearby

Nearby villages are Las Navas de Tolosa and La Carolina