Coto Doņana - Las Marismas

Las Marismas and the dunes of Doņana are among the most important natural areas of SW-Europe. The combination of the largest Spanish mobile dune system, stabilised dunes with woodland and scrubs (matorral), a vast wetland (Marismas) and the hydrological transition zones (ecotone) host a spectacular wildlife and a unique natural landscape. Although the area is a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site the natural values are under pressure of tourism and agriculture. Unfortunately the area has been hit by an environmental disaster in 1998; numerous fishes and birds died due to heavy metal poisoning after a mine dam broke (keeping disposal in a tailing pond) near Aznalcóllar upstream the Guadiamar river (

Location: SW-Spain, Andalucia, regions of Huelva and Cadiz. From Torre La Higuera in the west towards the Guadalquivir in the west (30 km further); from Sanlucar de Barrameda in the south to El Rocio in the north.

Size: The National Park is 50 000 ha, with additional buffer zones ("preparque") of 23.000 ha.

Manager & owner: Most of the Park area is owned and managed by the State (55%); 17% is municipal and 28% is private, but most of this (18%) is in phase of purchase by the State. The peripheral buffer zones are private property.

Actuality: After the 1998 disaster environmental organisations have asked for urgent measures while stressing that tailing ponds are not safe for disposal, that better techniques need to be developed and that Spanish legislation is been insufficient in relation to mine closure and restoration, mining safety and public access to information. One positive point is that political opportunities for restoration projects exist, like Guadiamar Green Corridor, and Doņana 2005.


Several thousands of years ago the area was a bay of the Atlantic Ocean. A dune spit began to develop from the eroding sand hills in the west, growing towards the south-east, almost closing off the former bay, leaving a small opening where the Guadalquivir meets the Ocean. On this sandy barrier dunes developed and the former bay was turned into a big, salty swamp, the Marismas.
Doņana is named after the duchess Doņa Ana Gómez de Mendoza de Silva y de la Cerda, who lived in the place that is still known as the Palacio de Doņana. (out of 17th century)The area was well known as a fishing area. Also hunters and charcoal burners lived in the area. Most of them had to leave after the area was designated National Park in 1969. In 1990 the area also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Between 1980 and 1990 the area became under increasing pressure of expanding tourist urbanisations (Matalascaņas) and under threat of desiccation due to increasing agricultural irrigation and drinking water supply (tourism).

Cultural Heritage

Most remarkable is perhaps the Palacio de Doņana, the place where Doņa Ana lived in the 16th century. Unfortunately the place can not be visited.

Nature & Landscape

Sea & beach: The beaches in the area are also called the 'Virgin beaches' because they are very clean and beautiful. The beach from Matalascaņas to Mazagon (in Ria de Huelva) is 30 km long and one of the few unspoilt beaches of Spain. The beach is rich in birds like gulls, Oystercatchers and plovers. One of the species, Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) lays its eggs in the embryo dunes of the beach.

Sand dunes
The large sand dune area of Doņana is constantly changing under the influence of the wind and the sea. Apart from mobile dunes also fixed or stabilised dunes exist. They cover some 14,000 ha within the Park offering a range of old dune forms from large parabolic dunes to hairpin dunes or to sand bars aligned with prevailing south-western winds. Here and there small active fronts develop, creating migrating tongues and deflation corridors.

Some dense pine forests occur in the dune area, but they have been more widespread some centuries ago. A special tree is the juniper, an old remnant of the original littoral forest. They are situated on dry sand bars in the dunes and cover only smaller but dense patches up to ca. 0.1 ha each. Also worth mentioning are Cork oak forests and the presence of Wild olive, Strawberry-tree end little pieces of primeval forest.

Wetlands (Las Marismas)
The marshes of this former marine bay, now under the influence of the Guadalquivir river, are mainly dominated by reeds. The most special feature is a large population of flamingo's. The marshes are characterised by a high mineral content (especially lime, Ca and sodium, Na) and a slow drainage, due to its clay soils of the Solonchak type that is very special for this area. In earlier days the area used to flood every year for 6 months. Now this flooding is restricted by draining and canalising for agricultural irrigation. In the mid 1980ies the authorities recognised that this irrigation disturbed the normal flooding in the area. The marshlands became much too dry which was bad for their flora and fauna. After a while authorities decided to improve the hydrological situation, but they were not able to solve all problems.

Park zones
The National Park is zoned, as stated in the management plan (1991), in the following way: special use zones (buildings, park facilities, hamlets, etc.) 173ha; moderate use zones (visitors centres and traditional tracks) 382ha; restricted use zones (surroundings of visitors centres where people are allowed to move around freely) 100ha; reserve zones (closed areas with access restricted to park managers and staff, researchers, private owners and their staff, and specially authorised people) 50,065ha.

Flora & Fauna
Before the 1998 disaster the total number of migratory birds was 6,000,000, and in 1987 361 bird species have been recorded. The number of species of the National Park was estimated: 29 mammals (including Iberian lynx), 19 reptiles, 12 amphibians and 7 fish species. After the disaster the number of individuals went down drastically. Especially the migratory birds suffered. Researchers found lots of heavy metals in the liver and the muscle tissue. Also the fish population went down both within the National Park and in the Guadalquivir.
Examples of bird species in the area are: White stork, Grey harrier, Great white heron, Stilt-avocet, Bee-eater, Woodchat, Flamingo and several species of gulls.Some 750 species of plants have been found in the park including: Cork oak, capers, Ciliate heath, Marram grass, Camarina, Seablite and Glasswort, Sea club rush and Bulrush.

Visitor Centres
Two visitor centres exist:
La Rocina, with a walking trail. Located just south to El Rocio.
El Acebuche, the departure of landrover excursions. Located in the SW-corner of the Park. Tel. +34 959 43 04 32 or +34 959 43 04 51.

Nature management
Management plans exist and are being implemented for the park as a whole, and for the Spanish lynx and Adalbert's eagle. The Water Management Plan was approved in 1994. Exotic plantations are gradually being converted to indigenous habitats (

Visitor info

Accessibility: Only small areas around the visitor centres are freely accessible. The main area can only be visited through organised tours (Excursions).

Hiking: : Only around the visitor centre and along the public roads (e.g. El Rocio - Matalascaņas).

Biking: Only along the public roads.

Excursions: Organised tours are organised of several hours (up to half a day) by Park rangers from the Acebuche visitor centre. Booking is recommended, tel. +34 959 430432.

Water: The beaches offer ample opportunities for swimming.

Dogs: Not allowed in the Park.

Horses: No bridle paths in the Park.

Catering establishments: Some small hotels and restaurants are available in El Rocio. Larger hotels can be found in Matalascaņas.

Annual events: There are some interesting annual festivals (traditional, music, Sevillanas) in the region, especially in El Rocio. More information:

the nearest railway station is Sevilla. The company DAMAS runs a regular bus service between Sevilla and Matalascaņas, via El Rocio. Buses leave from the Plaza de Armas. There is also a bus connection between Huelva and Matalascaņas. More information: tel: +34 959 25 69 00, [email protected],


Park Headquarters: Administrative Centre "El Acebuche", Route El Rocio-Matalascaņas, 21760 Matalascaņas; Parque Nacional Coto Doņana, Almonte, Tel. +34 959 44 87 11

Visitor Centre: Centro Visite di Acebuche, tel. +34 959 43 04 32 / +34 959 43 04 51 (organises excursions)

Discovering Doņana, Plaza Acecuchal 14, 21750, El Rocio, tel. +34 59 44 24 66