|Strawberry cultivation near Lepe.|
Via Verde - Coast
This 49km-long route links the appealing border town of Ayamonte, on the banks of the Guadiana river that divides Spain from Portugal, and Gibraleón. It runs along a disused railway line that dates from the late 1930s. There were plans to build a railway bridge across the 500m-wide Guadiana river, to link the track with the one on the Portuguese side, in Vila Real de Santo Antonio, but this project failed to materialise and the railway closed in 1988, only to reopen as a vía verde in 1998.
The vía verde passes through the saltmarshes typical of this part of the Costa de la Luz, such as the protected natural areas of the Marismas de Isla Cristina, the Marismas del Río Piedras y la Flecha del Rompido and the Marismas del Odiel.
There are plenty of good birdwatching opportunities, so it´s worth taking a pair of binoculars. The route is suitable for walkers, cyclists and horse riders, but due to the use of illegal motorised traffic along parts of the vía verde, some section have deteriorated so it is no longer suitable for wheelchair users. Ayamonte´s tourist office has details of bicycles to rent, Tel: 959 320 737.
The route starts at Ayamonte´s former railway station, now housing the bus station, on Avenida de Andalucía on the outskirts of town. It runs alongside the marshland of the river Guadiana, a protected area to the south that is valued for its wildlife. Keep an eye out for storks and spoonbills, the latter being this coastline´s quintessential bird. Also along here are abandoned saltpans, where salt was extracted and used for preserving fish in Isla Cristina.
At Km 6, about 3km from Isla Cristina, is an information centre, the Centro de Interpretación de El Hombre y la Marisma, Tel: 959 486 498, with a restored tidal watermill (molino de mareas). Mills such as this one were first used in the 18th century to harness the energy from the sea´s tides; they were also a common feature in the Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park, where they used to grind wheat; one can be seen on the Arillo river near San Fernando.
At Km 7 is Isla Cristina´s old railway station, which is now a car wash. The vía verde crosses the H412 that links Isla Cristina with the A49 motorway; be careful crossing this road, since it can be very busy in summer with visitors to Isla Cristina, a seaside resort popular with city dwellers from Huelva and Seville.
Beyond here, you can see how the marshlands are being increasingly encroached upon by agricultural activities, particularly by the strawberry growers of Lepe.
Just before you get to the old railway station of La Redondela at Km 11, look out for a lake to your left, the Laguna del Prado, which is rich in birdlife. Once past the small village of La Redondela, the route passes fruit plantations and pine forest before running alongside the N431 that leads to Lepe, an agricultural town best known for being Spain´s main producer of strawberries.
A short distance out of Lepe the route leaves the N431 behind and goes past cork groves and pine forest. It crosses the Piedras river, entering the panhandle of the protected Marismas del Río Piedras y la Flecha del Rompido Natural Area.
Beyond the old Cartaya railway station at Km 29 the surrounding fields are clad in orange groves. At Km 32 the route goes under the N341 and over a channel carrying water to the industrial zone of Huelva city. At Km 37 is the former tiny railway station for Aljaraque, a village 7km to the southwest.
The route then goes under the A49 motorway, close to Km 42 where the vía verde crosses the narrow gauge railway line linking the Tharsis mine with the port in Huelva city, where the minerals used to be loaded onto ships. The Tharsis track has now fallen into rusty disrepair but was used until relatively recently. Around Km 43 is the remote halt of La Mezquita.
One kilometre later are more orange groves and then the route enters the northern tip of the Marismas del Odiel Natural Area. It crosses the Odiel river at Km 48 via a footbridge, constructed in place of the former railway bridge that was damaged by flooding in 1998.
With its ruined castle, Gibraleón marks the end of the route, at the railway station, where trains still run on the Zafra-Huelva line. You can take a train from here either south to Huelva or north to the wooded hills of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche Natural Park, also great hiking and cycling territory.