Cuenca Minera is a small county on the border of the province of Huelva and Seville. About an hour’s drive away from Huelva capital, this landlocked area was made famous by the Riotinto mines and its landscapes that look like something taken straight out of a science fiction film. However, its past is firmly embedded in the realm of scientific fact, since its reserves of copper and pyrite, by far the most important on the continent, were exploited using the most advanced mining techniques of the time.
It is undeniable that Cuenca Minera’s landscape, with its reddish contours hewn by the hands of humans, has the capacity to fascinate both explorers and scientists alike. Proof of this lies in the fact that NASA itself performed many experiments in the area in preparation for expeditions to Mars, analysing in particular how microorganisms can survive in such hostile terrain.
Although the Tartessians, Phoenicians and Romans all recognised Cuenca Minera’s mining potential, it wasn’t until 1873, when a group of British industrialists acquired the rights to mine in the area, that Cuenca Minera was exploited to its fullest potential. With the foundation of the Rio Tinto Company Ltd came a wave of Victorian workers to the area, especially to the neighbourhood called Bella Vista, and they also brought with them such customs as cricket, golf and football. The house known as Casa 21 in Bella Vista has been renovated and turned into a museum to show the charmed life the company directors lived in Cuenca Minera towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Of course, Casa 21 does not reflect the living conditions of the many miners themselves.
The most heavily exploited area of Cuenca Minera was undoubtedly Corta Ayala, which is located right next to the town of Minas de Riotinto. Today, Corta Ayala is an enormous crater 350 metres deep. Sadly, it remains closed to the public so the best way of really getting to know the history of the area is by visiting the museum located in the old hospital. Here you will be able to see models that show the progression of mining practices in the area, such as a scale replica of an ancient Roman mine. The museum is also home to the famous Maharaja Carriage, a 19th century train carriage that was built specifically for Queen Victoria to travel from England to India by train and is widely considered the most luxurious narrow-gauge train carriage ever built.
The culmination of any visit to Cuenca Minera must be a ride on the old trainline that once connected the mines to the port of Huelva. Only a section of the line is now open to the public but the route the train takes today still follows the River Tinto, whose waters run a burning red thanks to the weathering of minerals that contain heavy sulphides at the source of the river. The train stops at the Peña del Hierro mine, which you can access via an old mining tunnel 200 metres long that will take you to an open-air artificial lake that contains the same red waters as the river. The colours and formation of the area make for a truly out-of-this-world experience.
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