We were looking forward to our visit to Doñana National Park during our holiday in Andalusia. Sadly, we can say it was much lacking. If you want to visit the park, do not go during the dry season, which is most of the summer. The year we went, it stopped raining in April and did not rain for months. When we went to Doñana National Park in September, the marshes were completely dry, and the forest had turned to scrub. It was depressing.

The dry southern Spanish landscape in the Doñana National Park under the heat of summer
A landscape photograph taken in the Matasgordas Cork Oak Forest

The famous wetlands you see in all the advertisements for the park are taken during the winter months when the weather is wetter. Had we gone then, perhaps we would have had a different experience.

How and When to Visit Doñana National Park

You can visit Doñana on your own, but you need a four-wheel drive. Most people opt for going with a tour operator rather than renting their own. We didn’t get an opportunity to walk in nature. Instead, our guide drove us right through the park. (Save one stop to give the passenger who had severe motion sickness a bit of a break).

A large nest of storks on some treetops
A nest of storks with many residents

There are several tour operators, so check out their reviews on Trip Advisor before booking. The agency we booked with were dishonest and promised many things that did not materialise. We do not recommend them. 

Ants taking dried plant matter into their nest
Some ants hard at work

Make sure to read the reviews carefully and note the date when the person wrote it. The season is essential. There are many good reviews from visits in winter or spring. These experiences will not translate if you go in summer or autumn. In general, the recommendation is to go in winter and spring.

Hoopoe bird in dry grasses of the Doñana National Park in Spain
This cute hoopoe was one of the few small critters we encountered on this excursion

What to See in Doñana National Park

There’s a lot of wildlife during the rainy season. Lots of migratory birds from the north hang out in Andalusia, waiting out the cold season.
There are also foxes, deer and other animals in the forests. Unfortunately, there were none of these there. Because the tour starts early in the summer months, the park operators do not open some protected sections till 10 A.M.. Our guide stopped outside one of these sections in the park. There were quite a few birds in it. These include egrets, storks and ibises.

Horses grazing on an open plain in the Doñana National Park
Horses grazing on an open plain

We wanted to go in, but it was closed. Had we been doing the trip ourselves, with the knowledge we have now, we would have skipped the other parts and head out for this protected area. We did, after all, sign on to see the wildlife.

A horse and her calf on a field of dry grass in the Doñana National Park in Southern Spain
A mother and her calf feeding under the late morning sun

Corto del Rey Pine Forest and Matasgordas Cork Oak Forest

Our guide spent most of our trip driving around the Corto del Rey Pine Forest and the Matasgordas Cork Oak Forest. It would be best if you had a four-wheel-drive to get around in these forests. The road is made of a thick layer of sand and gravel, and it is impossible to drive on with a regular car.

Under normal circumstances (i.e. when there’s rain), it’s possible to spot animals like badgers, mongoose and other critters typically found in a Mediterranean forest. We kept our eyes peeled for the Iberian lynx, but had no luck, unfortunately.

El Rocío Village

The most exciting part of the trip in this mainly uneventful tour was the visit to the town of El Rocío.

A catholic church in the outback like town of El Rocio in the Doñana National Park
Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Rocío, the church in the heart of El Rocio

When we first stepped out of the vehicle, onto the sandy ground of the village, we were surprised at how much it looked right out of a Spaghetti Western movie. Only, there is nothing fake about this place. The houses and their unique architecture are all real and part of the culture of the town.

Street in El Rocio that looks like from a Western movie
A typical “Wild West” street, one of many in El Rocio

El Rocío is an important town for practicing Catholic Spaniards because of the Rocío pilgrimage. During Pentecost on 31st May, the town is overrun with a seething mass of pilgrims dressed traditionally, on foot or on horses drawing decorated carts. It must be quite a spectacle!

Nature in El Rocío

I think it must be quite spectacular when it rains, and the fields are flooded. When we entered El Rocío, we noticed there was a raised platform bordering the town. When the land floods, this platform is over a large lake of water brimming with birdlife.

A man riding a horse in El Rocio, in the Doñana National Park
A horse rider dressed in his best

Unfortunately while we were there, the land was all dry and there was nothing on it. The only animals were the domesticated horses and dogs from the village milling about.

I did step into what seemed like an empty tourist information office, where there were many beautiful photographs of birds flying low over the flooded marshes. We hope to return on a better year to see such a spectacle.

A horse drawn cart outside a church in El Rocio, in the Doñana National Park
Horse drawn carriages wait outside the church to ferry tourist around the town

Hermitage of El Rocío

El Rocío itself is a cute and strange town. In the middle of the town, there is a church, around which all life in the town revolves.

This church that sits right in the middle of the main dusty square of the El Rocío. It is quite a large, modern looking church, with a gilded gold alter inside. It looks modern because it is – the original version was destroyed in the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 and it was not rebuilt till the 1960s.

An alter covered in a lot of gold in a Spanish church
The gilded interior of the Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Rocio

The Hermitage of El Rocío is special to Catholics in Spain because it is home to the Virgin of El Rocío. It is a small statue, only 1 metre in height, but is much venerated. She is the reason for the massive pilgrimage to the town every year.

Photo Taking with Miniature Horses

Horses are a big part of life in El Rocío, and everyone rides them. We saw local boys and girls riding fully grown horses. However, for the tourist children, there were miniature ones. I was too big for the mini-horses, but the owner makes money for himself and the horses by charging a euro for taking a photograph with them. I could not resist the opportunity.

Posing with a miniature horse in El Rocio
Bella and Peter Rabbit are fascinated by a miniature horse in El Rocío

El Acebrón Palace

During our trip, our guide took us to the El Acebrón Palace. It was a stately building in the protected area of La Rocina. Once a private residence and hunting lodge, it is now a visitors centre and museum. Most of the pieces inside concern land use of the surrounding area.

Bright white exterior of the El Acebrón Palace sits in a stark contrast to the blues, greens and yellows that surround it
Bright white exterior of the El Acebrón Palace sits in a stark contrast to the blues, greens and yellows that surround it

Outside the palace is a beautiful lagoon. Even in the dry season, the lagoon was stunning. It is surrounded by lush green trees all year round, and colourful dragonflies dance on the surface of the lake. Occasionally, a fish will jump out of the water and catch one of them.

The views from the roof terrace of the El Acebrón Palace are amazing
Do not miss the opportunity to climb to the roof terrace of the El Acebrón Palace – the views are amazing

Unfortunately for us, most of the walking paths around the lagoon were closed off for repairs. So all the space we had was a small viewing deck we shared with a couple of other groups. This snapshot of nature was what we were hoping to see everywhere on this trip. However, this was our only opportunity for such a sight.

Beautiful lagoon outside the El Acebrón Palace
Beautiful lagoon outside the El Acebrón Palace

Matalascañas Dunes

The last stop on our visit was the Matalascañas dunes. These dunes stretch out for miles, surrounding the famous Matalascañas beach, popular with Spanish holidaymakers.

Raised wooden walkway in the Matalascañas Dunes
One of the many raised wooden walkways in the Matalascañas Dunes

The dunes itself are extensive and quite lovely, and there are well-marked paths to walk on. The sea breeze was also a pleasant change from the searing inland heat we had experienced up till now.

The beach itself was very crowded. It’s a typical family beach holiday sort of place, not our cup of tea, but some people like it. There’s not a lot to do here if you don’t like sunbathing. We opted to spend all our time here on the dunes.

Conclusion

Overall, we felt Donaña was a missed opportunity for us. We would love to visit the marshlands and park in winter or spring, and we might do so with a different tour operator next time. I feel my negative review might be a tad unfair to the park because its dry state is no doubt caused by climate change, but I think that visitors need to know what they are signing up for. So once again, check what to expect depending on the season you will be visiting!

FAQs for Donaña National Park

Where is Doñana National Park located?

Donaña is located south of Seville, in Andalusia. You can get there with a 40-minute drive from the city.

How to visit Doñana National Park?

You can visit Donaña National Park on your own, if you have a four wheel drive. Some parts of the park are accessible by regular car, but a lot of it isn’t. The best way is to book with a tour operator.

About The Author

Danijel is a professional travel and music photographer and video producer.

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