We ended up spending a lot longer than expected in northern Spain. The weather was treating us well with crisp blue skies but frigidly cold nights so after four weeks we decided it was time for us to bask in the warmer south. We had about a week travelling through inland Spain before we finally made it to the south coast near Doñana National Park. After having almost every camp spot to ourselves we’ve now joined the hoards of sun-bakers down south so when we pulled up to camp we were one of 15 other vans. Luckily we managed to get the best spot, at least in our opinion, as it was a corner position which meant we were guaranteed no neighbour on one side and a lovely view of the sand dunes and forest outside our windows. Soon after arrived a tiny Chihuahua came up to our side door wanting to jump inside. The poor thing was too short and as we bent down to give it a stroke the owner appeared. It was a guy from Czech Republic who spoke fluent English and we ended up having a long chat. Him and an Austrian guy in another van have been staying in this spot for 6 weeks!! To be honest I don’t really agree with that, I think if you’re free camping you should be moving to a different place every couple of days but I guess no one minds them being here as the police drive by a couple of times a day and don’t say anything. They were very nice guys though and we realised it’s the first conversation we’ve had with anyone in 5 weeks! They told us about an older couple who visited a few days before and thought they could drive to the beach along a sand track but they got totally stuck and had to get towed back out.
After an early dinner we followed a wooden boardwalk through the forest to the beach about 1km away. We made it just in time for sunset and a local was galloping on his very fancy looking horse. There was a nice promenade to walk along with lots of grand houses but the occasional plot would have an abandoned building or a rustic camp with caravans and flags.
We planned on spending a full day relaxing in the sun but when we woke up we were surrounded by fog. After breakfast we decided to walk to the beach again but this time head west so we were walking parallel to the National Park and hopefully see some wildlife. It’s a really strict park and you can’t enter on foot or in vehicle unless on a guided tour which we weren’t interested in doing but the beach is free to visit. It looked really apocalyptic with limited visibility due to the thick fog but we soon realised it was a little boring as everything just looked the same. We also realised our chances of seeing any wildlife was very slim so we headed back to Helga. Eventually the sun burnt through the cloud and we had a lovely day relaxing in our camp chairs at the carpark. We chatted to our camper van neighbours and Craig carved a new wooden cup. He also found a wild boar jaw with teeth still intact which was pretty cool. There were a lot of monster trucks in the area, usually from Germany, Switzerland or the Netherlands. They’re 4×4 beasts and honestly some of them almost look as big as 18 wheeler trucks. I hate the big ones actually, it seems so ironic to have an off-road vehicle that’s too big to access most places.
Craig didn’t manage to finish his cup and we liked the relaxed vibe of the area so we decided to stay an extra day. We met a few new people, one lady from the Netherlands was driving a huge motorhome on her own. Apparently her husband suddenly died of a heart attack so she wants to get confident to roadtrip on her own and has joined an organised group of Dutch motorhomes who all meet up at a campground each night. We made sure to walk down to the beach every evening to see the sunset and we had some beautiful shows with fuchsia pink clouds that reflected on the wet sand.
A new couple from the Czech Republic parked near us and when we talked about our next destination they asked if they could join us. As chatty as I am, I’m definitely an introvert and someone inviting themselves to join us always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. But of course I had to say yes, I just hate the idea of convoys though as I feel you have to spend so much time making arrangements, seeing what everyone wants to do and at what time, or worse waiting for people to be ready. But I should stop thinking like that as they were a really nice couple.
So the place we were heading to which enticed them to join us was El Rocío. It’s a bizarre little pilgrimage town on the edge of the national park. All of the buildings are painted white and the roads are made of sand so it has a proper Wild West feel to it. Not only that but the town is built beside a huge wetland area home to flamingos, among other birds. I wanted to get there for sunrise as apparently deer come to drink at the lake so we set off at around 7:30am. Sadly there were only a couple of deer way off in the distance but there were lots of flamingoes who were more white than pink. They had candy coloured beaks though and a small patch of fluorescent pink feathers hiding under their tail.
The huge golden sun rose above the village and reflected across the water with the little silhouettes of birds bobbing on the surface. We had some breakfast and then we all headed out for a walk to explore the village. The Czech couple had a lovely border collie so it made a lovely change having a dog join us on a walk.
In the 1950s there were still only a few houses in the village and everyone camped in their wagons. Now all of the brotherhoods have their own house, stables and chapel with their name painted atop it. Friends and family will sleep in their chapel while visiting for the pilgrimage weekend and it’s so busy people just bring mattresses and sleep wherever they find a spot. The brotherhood don’t live in these houses but they sometimes visit on the weekends with their families. I guess it’s kind of like a holiday home in a religious camp. The big pilgrimage isn’t something I’d like to witness as I hate crowds but it sounds quite fascinating with a backlog of horse-drawn wagons trying to reach the dusty streets. The locals dress in traditional Andalucian attire which sounds very cowboy themed with leather chaps and wide brimmed hats for men and flamenco dresses for women. Some people arrive on horseback while others are in oxen pulled gypsy wagons. Apparently the population of the village swells from 1000 to 1 million for the festival!!!
The village was much bigger than we expected with rows of neat white houses and verandas. They even had wooden rails outside restaurants so people could tie their horses up while they had a drink. It really felt like time had stood still here with the authentic wild west vibe but there was one thing that took the romantic spell away, the cars. The roads were wide and the village squares were spread out so there was plenty of space for parking which meant it was hard to take a photo without a car in it. Not only that but whenever one drove past we’d get covered in a film of dusty sand.
The village centrepiece was the huge church which looked like it had a fresh coat of white paint. A huge shell was carved into the entrance of the building and inside was an elaborate gold feature piece…I have no idea what it would be called but it was very fancy! We strolled all around the town and through the fields out back where the locals kept their horses. We ended up walking with the Czech couple for 3 hours before we got back to our vans and bid them farewell as they headed west to Portugal and we continue our joinery east.