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The Rio Tinto mines

August 14, 2011

Near Huelva in south west Spain 

Few places have been so thoroughly devastated by industrialisation as this.  Villages destroyed, holes dug 1000 feet deep, and whole mountains blasted away, leaving mineral-rich rock faces with rivulets of rust streaming into the red river.

But it is also inspiring.  Thousands of men have struggled here since Roman times to dig the minerals on which civilization was built.  Many died, but some became rich, invested their profits in better machines and dug bigger mines.  As much as any scientist, and more than any general, they built the foundations of our present prosperity.   The marks of their industry are all around.

The village of Minas de Riotinto was built by the Rio Tinto mining company in the early 20th century to house some of the workers from the village of the same name that they were about to destroy.

  • Visit the Mining Museum, (Museo Minero y Ferroviaro) located in the former British hospital, Plaza del Museo s/n 21660 to get your bearings.
  • Cross the road to the Barrio de Bella Vista, or the English colony.  A Victorian housing estate with its won mock Gothic church, village green and social club.
  • Travel on the tourist train from the Centro de Recepcion del Ferrocarril along the banks of the Rio Tinto itself.  The line was built at the end of the 19th century to carry iron to Helva for export to Britain and the rest of the world.


Rio Tinto lies on the huge Spanish/Portuguese pyrite belt which runs for about 230 km between Seville and the Atlantic.  Formed by seabed volcanic activity in the lower carboniferous era about 320 million years ago, it contained about 1.7 billion tons of ore before humans started mining it.   

Within the belt are eight giant mining areas, each with more than 100 Million tons of ore, Rio Tinto, Aznalcollar-Los Frailes, Sotiel-Migollas, Tharsis, La Zarza, Masa Valverde, Aljustrel and Neves Corvo, and many smaller ore bodies.

The Rio Tinto area is the largest and most spectacular, but environmentalists will also want to visit Aznalcollar, the site of a terrible pollution accident in 1998 when a failure of the Los Frailes tailings dam spilled toxic slurry into the Guadiamar river and threatened Donana National park.

Within the Rio Tinto mining area are five main ore bodies the San Dionisio, the south lode, the planes-San Antonio, the north lode and the Cerro Colorado.   They are believed to have once been a single, continuous stratum of ore 5 km long by 750m wide and about 40 meters thick, containing half a billion tons of ore.  Before man came along natural erosion had whittled that down to about 250 million tons.

The following are some of the biggest holes in the ground.

  • Corta Pena de Hierro (“iron mountain”).   One of the oldest mines in the area, going right back to Phoenician times.   A special tourist bus runs most days from the Minas de RioTinto museum.  The well springs here are the source of the Rio Tinto river.  It gets in the news occasionally because scientists from NASA are drilling in the area in the hope of learning about early life forms, the MARTE project.

  • Cerro Colerado the second largest

  • Corta Atalaya the biggest of all.

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