Rio Tino in Huelva Province

Rio Tinto: Don’t Ever Take Things for Granted

  |   Spain   |   19 Comments

There are things in life that you take for granted. Sugar is sweet, for example. Fire is burning hot. Lavender smells like your mother’s bedsheets. Stuff like that.

But sometimes you travel to places where things that you have taken for granted are shaken up and turned upside down. Places that challenge your outlook on the world, that make you wonder what else you didn’t know about.

One such place is the old mining area of Rio Tinto in Huelva in the south of Spain.

Old Mining Sign

A River the Colour of Clotted Blood

The water of the River Rio Tinto is not blue nor brown nor green like the water of other rivers. If you have always thought that this was the palette of colours that was available to a river then you are now proven wrong. As the name suggests, Rio Tinto is indeed red.

Now, there are different kinds of reds in nature. Strawberry red and the red of roses, for example. The dark red of red wine and the orangey red inside a blood orange. In the case of Rio Tinto, it’s the kind of red that sliding on a scale between the colour of thick blood that is about to clot and the near black of cherry cola. In the shallows, hues of ochre and glowing orange come into the mix.

It’s a sight to behold, a freak of nature, a wonder like no other. Given how much Rio Tinto makes you question your perception of reality it’s a big surprise how little it is known around the world as a tourist destination.

A River the Colour of Cherry Cola

A History of Mining

There is of course a good reason for the red hue in the water. The area of Rio Tinto is rich in minerals and metal deposits. For more than 3,000 years, people have mined the area to extract copper, silver and gold and bring it to the surface of the earth.

The colour in the river that flows through the area is testament to the high iron content in the soil. The red is quite the same phenomenon as rust – oxidised iron.

So even though the water may look toxic thanks to human interference, the colour is actually just a jest of nature. But of course, mining operations in the area did impact the environment on a grand scale, and when you visit you will see how much humans have changed the landscape in order to reach the valuable ores.

A scarred mining landscape

A Train Ride in the Riotinto Mine

The best way to see the blood red water of the river is by booking a return ticket on the heritage mining train. The narrow gauge rail was opened by the British in 1875 to help transport the minerals quickly and efficiently to port in Huelva. 12 kilometres of the railway remain in the old mining area, and today you can book tickets to travel down the last remaining part of the tracks and back again.

Your journey will take you along the Rio Tinto, rattling and shaking. Take a seat on the left for the best views through the open windows, have the breeze ruffle your hair as the wooden carriages jolt into motion. The voice from the loudspeakers explain the scenery, but it is all in Spanish. So we just sit back and relax.

The voyage is slow and leaves enough time to study the scenery. Rail tracks everywhere, going nowhere. Rusty carriages, locomotives and historic train carriages, heavy machinery, freight wagons. Like forgotten toys they stand in the hot sunshine, no longer able to move.

The Historic Train

A Healing Landscape

Overall, traces of human interference with the landscape. Slag heaps, and tunnels, the foundations of bridges, the deck long gone. Abandoned buildings with shattered window panes, the doors ajar. The colour of the terraced holes, the broken mountains, the man-made hills vary from a rusty red to a silvery grey. It’s a busy, broken, healing landscape.

The river joins us some minutes into the journey. For the next couple of kilometres it will be our loyal companion. Like a red snake it slithers through the scenery, contrasting with the pretty light green tufts of the conifers. A magical, otherworldly landscape of bizarre colours, like a trip to Mars.

Before we return along the same tracks back to the station we are allowed to get off the train and find our way down to the river. We walk on stepping stones all the way to the middle of the stream. For a moment, we become part of this alien landscape.

Getting close to the river

Visiting Rio Tinto in Huela Province

Places like Rio Tinto can do something that is very special. They can make you wonder again. Take you back to the days of childhood when things were still new and you didn’t take them for granted.

These places encourage you to question the world around you, awake your curiosity, challenge you to see things differently.

You thought that all rivers were blue? Well, you were wrong. Now go and see it for yourself.

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Silke Elzner

AUTHOR - Silke Elzner

Hello! My name is Silke. Happiness and Things is a travelogue about amazing European destinations and beautiful places around the world. I believe that beauty is even in the smallest things and I want to inspire you to see the world differently. Read more about it here.

  • Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA | Nov 29, 2017 at 1:49

    Great photos! Thanks for the information. I’ll add it to my next trip to Spain!

  • Dany | Dec 2, 2017 at 20:24

    I’ve noticed the same thing in a lake in Puglia region (Italy) because of an old bauxite mine. Which is, as I’m guessing, what happened also in the area of Rio Tinto. I like that you explored it on an ancient British railway, how cool!

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 2, 2017 at 21:07

      That’s the first time I hear about this lake. What’s it called?

  • Christina | Dec 2, 2017 at 20:35

    Interesting reading and it’s fascinating to see the impact on mining in Spain. I didn’t realise Rio Tinto mined in Spain but it does make sense as they are huge. Beautiful photos too.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 2, 2017 at 21:08

      I think the reason why they are called Rio Tinto is because they made a fortune on this site. I don’t think they mine or own this area anymore though.

  • Kavita Favelle | Dec 2, 2017 at 20:42

    Gosh that’s fascinating, and you are right, the colour of the water really messes with your perception of it being a river at all! Fascinating to learn more about it and the mining history of the area, and your photos really showcase the unusual sight of the Rio Tinto!

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 2, 2017 at 21:10

      Thanks for your comment! What associations do you have with the colour of the river? I’d love to hear more comparisons 🙂

  • Hannah | Dec 2, 2017 at 22:59

    I love it when a trip shakes your raison d’être! Shaking your pre-conceptions to the ground and making you think. I can see why the Rio Tinto had this effect on you – the blood red colour of the river is other-worldly. I’m glad parts of the mining train are still working, as it’s such a shame to see old relics completely unused. I wasn’t aware of the Rio Tinto, so will check it out when I visit Spain next year.

  • Tom Bourlet | Dec 2, 2017 at 23:04

    The water definitely has an eerie, yet magical look to it! I’ve not actually heard of the area before but I’d love to visit some time. It is a shame when mining does such damage to a climate, this happened near where some of my relatives lived in North England.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 3, 2017 at 2:04

      Tom, Do you mean it does damage to the climate or to the landscape? What happened in the north of England?

  • Marcus and Mel | Dec 2, 2017 at 23:16

    Love the pics, the colour of that river is amazing, such a deep red. The narrow gauge rail trip does look a great way to take in the unusual scenery.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 3, 2017 at 2:07

      Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the pictures. Yes, the train ride was perfect to see a very long stretch of the Rio Tinto.

  • Anna Faustino | Dec 3, 2017 at 15:12

    The name of the river is very appropriate! It definitely looks like it has so many minerals in it. The tint makes it look so unusual and in a way cool! How did you discover this place? Traveled Spain a few times but never heard of it. Must make time to check it out later on as it is really unusual.

  • Skye Class | Dec 4, 2017 at 21:25

    What a fascinating location. I love the usual colors found in nature, even if this one is technically man-made. Just like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, which gets its hue as a byproduct of the nearby geothermal steam plant. The train station there also looks fascinating, and the exact kind of place I love to explore. I’m actually planning a trip to Spain in January next year. Perhaps I could include the Rio Tinto my itinerary.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 5, 2017 at 1:18

      Skye, I am not quite sure if the colour is man-made. I think it actually occurs naturally due to the iron rich soil. I really would encourage you to have a closer look at Rio Tinto. It is such an usual place and not very well-known among international tourists yet. I think most people who travelled with us on the train were Spanish.

  • Paige | Dec 5, 2017 at 15:22

    I’ve never heard of Rio Tinto. I think it’s amazing when nature does something interesting like this. My husband and I went hiking in Hawaii and the dirt was bright red because of the iron content – I slipped and fell on the hike and got mud on my shirt, and it’s forever stained red. I would love to take the train ride here. It sounds like a wonderful and interesting experience.

  • Elisa (World in Paris) | Dec 6, 2017 at 7:41

    What an interesting place. I don’t know where this river begins or ends its journey but I wonder if it is always red like this or only through this area? A pity that they did not took more care of this area, like rebuilding the bridge without deck for example. Maybe the visit would be even more interesting. Thanks for sharing this off the beaten path place in Spain

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Dec 9, 2017 at 2:19

      Hi Elisa, When you follow the river on Google Maps you will see that it’s basically red all the way through until Huelva where it flows into the ocean. It’s just a sign of the special composition of soil and not by human intervention.

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