Hidden Corners of Spain: Cartaya, Huelva
Huelva seems to be one of those provinces that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the Spain guidebooks. Tucked away in the far southwest corner of Spain and sharing a border with southern Portugal, Huelva is a relatively quiet place away from the crowds of Sevilla, Granada and Málaga. However, it has its fair share of beautiful coastline, there’s a huge nature preserve, and it doesn’t seem to get overly crowded. Rightly named La costa de luz (coast of light), it’s sunny nearly year round and the sun is so bright you definitely need shades.
I ended up there this summer after leaving Robledillo de Gata because some familia política lives in the medium-sized town of Cartaya, about half an hour from the city of Huelva (the capital of the province). I spent the majority of my vacation here relaxing with the family, with quick beach trips and excursions to nearby towns, morning runs, afternoons plastered on the couch, dinners on the patio, and teaching the 13 year old sobrino how to tune and play his guitar.
One of the top highlights of this trip was finally stand-up paddleboarding, something that had been on my bucket list for years! I don’t have any pictures though, so did it really happen? What an incredible experience, standing up in the ocean with the sun and a light breeze on my face. I can’t wait to do it again!
As far as the town of Cartaya, its buildings are all white, you won’t find any exciting colorful houses here like in Sevilla. But the whitewashed houses give it a charming Andalusian feel and make the bright sunlight reflect even more. The town has a population of around 20,000, and the nearest beach, El Rompido, is an amazing spot for stand-up paddleboarding and boating. Between the beach and the town, there’s a lot of undeveloped land in the nature preserve Marismas del Rio Piedras. As far as food, there’s plenty of fresh seafood in the local market and at the nearby restaurants. La gamba de Huelva (prawn/shrimp) is one of the top things to eat. I was treated to gambas at the house after having bought them fresh at the market.
Other nearby towns I had the chance to visit were Ayamonte and Sanlúcar de Guadiana. Ayamonte is around the same size as Cartaya but lies to the west, right on the border with Portugal where the Guadiana River separates the two countries. The city has a zoo inside a municipal park, but it seems they’ve moved all the animals out, which is better because there really isn’t a lot of space for them to move. The sidewalks are full of terraces of bars and cafes and there’s a generally lively and colorful atmosphere.
Sanlúcar de Guadiana, by contrast, is all white. It’s another border town on the Guadiana River and looking across you can see the Portuguese town of Alcoutim. Sanlúcar is a sleepy village not very close to any major city and sort of hidden out in the dry hills of the southwest. From the dock of the river you can catch a boat across to Alcoutim and say you’ve been to Portugal. You can actually ride a zipline from the top of the hill in Sanlúcar across the river into Portugal too, but I wasn’t quite brave enough for that experience.
Being in this tucked-away corner of Spain while visiting small towns and less-crowded beaches felt like the safest option this year, given the pandemic situation. Was travel 100% necessary? Actually, it kind of was – we needed to travel to Cartaya to transport the suegra – the 82 year old family matriarch – back to her home outside Zaragoza. The poor woman went to Huelva to be with her daughter just after Christmas and got stuck there during the pandemic. So this trip was the perfect way to combine family necessities with typical vacation activities.
Between the Sierra de Gata, family time in Cartaya, tons of time at the beach, seafood, stand-up paddleboarding, tons of time for rest and reading, and visiting these adorable towns, 2020 Pandemic Vacation was above and beyond what I expected and I’m grateful to have had this experience.