Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Monday, May 30, 2016

La Romería de El Rocío

La ermita (The Hermitage) de El Rocío, destination of pilgrims from all over Europe

For years now I’ve heard about La Romería de El Rocío.  When I was first asked if I knew about it, I said, sure, I’ve been to the restaurant Romerijo.  No, laughed Carmen, the romería!  Like El Rocío!  She made a sign for drinking lots and dancing. 

Custom bar in our 4x4

The Romería de El Rocío is probably the most famous pilgrimage in Spain, after the Camino del Santiago.  But you can walk El Camino anytime you want.  El Rocío is special, since from our side (El Puerto, Jerez, Sanlúcar, Chipiona, Arcos) you are allowed special passage through Spain’s largest and most vigorously protected national park, El Parque Nacional Doñana.  You aren’t even allowed to WALK  in Doñana; if you want to visit, you have to take either a boat or a 4x4-drive tour.

The coast of Doñana National Park, the largest in Spain

But once a year, the road through El Coto de Doñana is opened, and thousands of pilgrims stream through on their way to the Hermitage of  El Rocío.  The park resounds with the sound of laughing and clapping, sevillanas rocieras, the whinnies and brays of horses and mules, and the low roar of motorized tractors and four-wheel-drives that replace much of the horse-and oxpower that was used in bygone days.

The mules often have special designed shaved into their coats

The Romería de El Rocío can be traced back to the fourteenth century, when the Hermitage of Santa Maria de las Rocinas was first mentioned, but the pilgrimage didn’t really get going until mid-seventeenth century, when the towns of Almonte, Villamanrique de la Condesa, and Pilas send their brotherhoods to pay their respects to the Virgen, who at this point began to be known as Santa María de El Rocío.   

Our route through the Coto of Doñana National Park

Shortly thereafter they were joined by brotherhoods from La Palma de Condenado, Moguer, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  By the beginning of the 19th century, brotherhoods from El Puerto de Santa María and Rota joined in, and now there are more than a hundred hermandades that arrive each year to be presented to the Virgen. 

Loading a simpecao, a miniature version of the Virgen de El Rocio's processional float.
The hermandad brings the simpecao with them through Doñana.

We happened to choose the wettest and muddiest romería in the last 30 years.  Rain was forecast for almost the whole time.  We couldn’t back out—it was now or never—and so we packed our tent in the old Landrover owned by our friends Maria, Enrique, Antonia, Piro, Francisco, and Lola, who have been pilgrimaging every year together for the last quarter-century.   Come hell or high water, we were going to The Rocio!

Dancing the sevillanas with Antonia in front of the loaded Landrover, Enrique on drum and flute

It rained on the way to Sanlúcar, where we parked our car and made our way to the open barge to cross the Rio Guadelete on our way to La Doñana.  It rained in the boat, and my nice purple-and-yellow feria dress did not like that.  

In feria finery despite the rain.  These dresses are indestructible as well as beautiful.

My boots didn't like the wet, either, so I hemmed and hawed when getting on the barge, waiting for the beach wave surge to fall back, when a big Guardia Civil tromped through the shallows and scooped me up onto his shoulder, heaving me aboard, dry boots and all.  

My orange-jumpsuit-clad savior
Piro, Lola, and Antonia battle the weather

It rained while we walked up the sandy slopes to the road where the tractors and carts and SUVs (and I mean REAL SUVs, not those cushy modern things by Mercedes and Porsche) waited to start into the park.  There was no room in Maria’s Landrover—it was packed to the gills and then some, all the necessities for a week on the trail piled high on the roof rack.  So in the rain, Todd and I walked.

Wet but still incredibly beautiful
That is, until a nice carriola passed us by, and Todd waved to them.  The guy hanging off the stairs waved back, and called out, Run!  Run!  So we did, and jumped aboard the moving RV-like thing.  Inside was a full kitchen, a giant long table, and many people eating, drinking, singing, and even dancing sevillanas while going down the trail.  

Click here to see the inside of the carriola

The sombrero-clad pilgrim who had invited us in turned out to be Herman, the director of Todd’s gym, Club Activa.  In typical pilgrim fashion they welcomed us with homemade tortilla de patata, rebujito, fino, jamón, and plenty of singing.  I played my castanets (I still haven’t learned the words to most sevillanas) and enjoyed being out of the rain and in good company.

Rain, rain everywhere
Lucky for us, it stopped raining when we got to the camp site for the night.  We pitched our tent and helped bring out the ample provisions Maria, Lola, and Antonia had prepared.  Despite all the noise and hubbub, the jabali or native wild pigs came snuffling about, squealing in delight when they found abandoned tortilla or picos.   

Wild pig, here known as a jabali, scavenge for food, unafraid of us pilgrims

We sang and ate and drank throughout the evening, but it was too cold and windy to dance.   Around 11 that evening, the Hermandad de Jerez passed right by our camp, their simpecao glittering and mysterious in the lamplight, accompanied by the snorting and whinnies of the horses Jerez is famous for. 

Click here for a couple of sevillanas sung in the night by the Jerez hermandad (from 2014)

Simpecao de Jerez

We were happy not to have been flooded out during the night, and after packing up camp the next morning, we headed over to the improvised altar for mass.  To our surprise, two children, a girl and a boy, were receiving their First Communion right there in the middle of el coto de Doñana.  The priest was funny and kind, and it added a special sense of the religious to the whole experience.

Breakfast on the road in the rain

Todd and I walked back through Doñana to catch the boat back to Sanlúcar and our car.  Rain was forecast for that day and night, and we also couldn’t palm our kids off on our friends indefinitely.  This turned out to be a spectacular bonus.  Fluffy rainclouds crisscrossed the warm sun, raining only occasionally, and we saw more jabali, as well as small Spanish deer, and multitudes of birds in the peaceful coastal forest.  We had the entire Doñana to ourselves for the 90-minute walk.

All the wildlife here is protected

After sending the girls to school on Friday, Todd and I left to drive around to El Rocío, the location of the Hermitage where all the hermandades were heading.  We’d rented a room in nearby Mataslascañas, where Maria and crew were staying, close enough to enjoy the Rocío but still affordable. 

Todd found himself a hat on the trail back to Sanlúcar and became a real rociero.

Entering El Rocío, I was astounded.  There were horses everywhere, wagons, carts, covered wagons, mules, riders, women in their beautiful trajes de gitana and even huge oxen!  

Click here for a little taste of El Rocío

The oxen were probably my favorites, huge enormous beasts with intricate headdresses traveling at about 0.001 km/hr.

The streets were unpaved, their yellow sand wet and puddle-filled.  Horses were hitched to the houses lining the streets, their high facades complete with bells.  I realized suddenly that Americans had not created the image of The American West.  It had come from the Spanish!  Everywhere I looked seemed like something out of a Western, except it was more authentic, somehow more natural.  

Park your horses out front, please.
The riders sat their high-spirited horses without any sign of nervousness or fear, and the drivers wound their wagons skillfully through the crowds.  The simpecaos, surrounded by pilgrims clapping and singing and drawn by huge oxen wearing detailed headdresses, were covered with flowers and creaked by on their way to be presented to the Virgen, followed by the covered wagons in various colors.

One simpecao more beautiful than the next.  These are miniature versions of the Virgen's processional float.

We waited at the Puerto hermandad to greet the incoming pilgrims, then left for Matalascañas to meet up with our friends.  Despite having gotten up at 7 am, we laughed and sang and drank and shared stories until late. 

Todd Eastwood

The following day Todd and I headed into El Rocío again, wandering the streets, which were becoming increasingly crowded with the arrival of each new hermandad.   Suddenly I heard my name:  there were Carmen and Lourdes and Margarita, from my dance class!  

Las guapas de la casa
They’d rented a house right on the main street coming into the hermitage, and invited us to lunch.  We stood on the front porch to watch the hermandad de Jerez parade past, the site impressive.  I tried to capture the sense of color and flowers and fiesta, but it needs to be lived. 

The arrival of the hermandad de Jerez de la Frontera, and its simpecao, with singing and clapping

And you thought covered wagons came from the American West??  Here's the originals.

Flowers, flowers everywhere.  

The most stylish, expert, relaxed riders and horses ever.

Click here to see me play the castanets at El Rocío

Todd and I returned to Puerto that evening.  We’d not seen all of the Rocio—we missed the biggest days, those of visiting the Virgen and singing to her, like my friend Begoña did, and we missed her procession through the streets of El Rocio to visit each hermandad.    

Another hermandad enters the town on its way to be presented to the Virgen.

But we now had a good sense of la romería de El Rocío, with the good company and spirituality, the fiesta and fun, the hardships of the trail and the excitement of coming together in a huge gathering that is, at its heart, very religious.  ¡Viva la virgen de El Rocío!  ¡Viva la reina de las Marismas!  ¡Viva la blanca paloma!  ¡Viva la madre de Dios!

Click here to hear Begoña sing to the Virgen

La Virgen de El Rocío in her hermitage, ready for the procession


  1. Wow, it's like I was there with you! Love the butt-tattoos on the mules, the cava (surely) carriola ride, and the flamenco dresses in the wild! And all those Andalusian horses (among the most elegant in the world) just walking around on the streets, working, carrying kids. Swoon!


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