Driving through the Ebro Delta – rice fields, birdlife and marsh

Driving across the delta of the River Ebro to the sea is startlingly different. Seemingly endless rice fields stretch away to the horizon, a flat, green, water-filled landscape, in complete contrast to the mountains and beachfronts of the coastal strip.

Full disclosure – we didn’t have much time to spend here. Just a couple of hours for a drive down to the desembocadura (mouth) of Spain’s second longest river, but enough time to get a flavour of the place.

The Ebro nears the end of its 900 km journey to the Mediterranean
Rice fields stretching into the distance.

Two hours drive south of Barcelona, it’s a great choice for a stop-off if you’re travelling on the Autopista del Mediterraneo. And if you’ve never seen rice cultivation up close before, it’s fascinating to see where the stuff actually comes from. Especially if you eat the amount of rice dishes that we do!

A complex network of channels and sluice gates diverts water from the Ebro (Ebre in Catalan) into the rice fields. Some are empty, waiting for planting, with white egrets and herons wading in the mud and searching for food. In other fields, the rice plants are still growing. We were here in late autumn, well past the peak harvesting season in September.

Back in the day, the rice was harvested by hand, using sickles – just like the images we’re used to from Asian paddy fields. Here, it’s now done by tractor and combine harvester; huge wheels or caterpillar tracks stop the vehicles sinking into the mud.
Young rice growing – you can see the grains forming on the stalks. They turn yellow when ready for harvest.

Mirador del Zigurat

We drove down to the Zigurat, a Tower of Babel style lookout point near Riumar, right at the mouth of the river. There you get a wonderful panorama of the Ebro in its final few hundred metres run to the Mediterranean. It’s easy to get to – you can park nearby and it’s just a short walk along the river to the tower.

The delta from space with the Zigurat viewpoint arrowed (picture: NASA)
The Zigurat viewpoint alongside the river mouth.
Waves breaking where the Ebro meets the Mediterranean – view from the Zigurat.

There’s a network of cycle paths for getting around – no need for much muscle power in this relentlessly flat landscape – and the delta is a treat for birdwatchers.

Fascinating fact!

The delta landscape is constantly changing. A huge flood in 1937 changed the course of the Ebro, forcing the river to find a new channel to the sea. The flow of sediment has slowed dramatically over the years, because of the dams built upstream – 187 of them, according to this NASA study.

The Ebro through the eyes of a statue near the Zigurat mirador.

For more info, check out this guide to the delta. We’ll be back!

© Guy Pelham

If you’d like to know more about where much of the rice ends up, check out my post here on paella.

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