Cantabria is world famous for its caves and cave paintings. Not only is it home to the Cueva de Altamira and its renowned paintings, but the Cueva de El Castillo has now also been found to house some of the oldest cave art in the world. Aside from cave art, Cantabria is also home to the Cueva de El Soplao, which has very rare and very beautiful cave formations. My advice would be to check the opening times carefully, as they vary at different times of year, and where possible, book in advance online.
Billed as “A unique cave”, El Soplao really is unique. Previously a mine, 4km of its total 20km are open to the public on a very well thought out guided tour. The tour starts by getting on an old mining train (although it is not always running, sometimes you have to walk this bit), and going into the heart of the cave. From there you are walked around its various cavities, but the highlight is at the far end of the visit, to the chamber of helictites, gravity defying beautiful white formations, which are breathtaking. There are two types of visit to the cave, the ordinary “tourist” visit (Adult 12€) or the “tourism-adventure” visit (Adult 32€). The latter consists of donning a boiler suit and hard hat with light, and heading further into the cave. You don’t get to see the whole of the tourist tour, but you do get to the helictite chamber, and then continue into the darkness to see more formations and chambers, culminating in the 100% darkness experience (amazing if you’ve never done this). For this tour, you buy your tickets at the desk and then walk back down the road to the hut below the entrance, you don’t take the train. It’s a good idea to get tickets to El Soplao in advance, especially in summer as it can get very busy. You must be there to collect (or buy) your tickets 30 minutes in advance. The cave is located near Puentenansa, and don’t underestimate the journey time from the A8, leave yourself 45 minutes for this on a busy day. There is a cafe onsite and picnic tables and marked walks near the large car park, which also has fantastic views over the surrounding area.
PREHISTORIC CAVES – all the following caves are UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Cantabria is home to the world famous Altamira Cave and their 18,500 year old paintings. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible see the original paintings in the cave itself (the rumours of a 3 year waiting list for the cave are a myth, there is no such list, and there are no visitors to the cave at all), however there is an extremely good replica and accompanying museum. It is located very close to Santillana del Mar, and clearly signposted. Entrance is Adult 3€ for a guided tour, sometimes available in English, and it is possible to buy tickets in advance online. There are certain days of the year when admission is free.
Update: As of 27th February 2014, the Altamira Cave has been reopened after 12 years under and an experimental visitors program. It works like this: on a certain day at a certain time every week, there is a “lottery” of those visiting the museum at that time. 5 people are chosen to enter the real Altamira cave with a guide for 37 minute visit. They announce the day and time on their website each week, however there is no way of knowing further in advance when the lottery will take place, and it is not possible to book in advance or request a visit. It is totally luck of the draw! This is an experimental program running until August 2014, after that, who knows!
Update: The experimental program mentioned above has now been extended to February 2015.
Update March 2015: The experimental program has now finished and its future continuation is currenty subject to debate with UNESCO.
The Cueva de El Castillo, above Puente Viesgo, is in my opinion the best place to see cave art up close in Cantabria (personally, this is where I take visitors), and get a close look at the 40,000-year-old curious hand imprints, as well as dot patterns, animals and various other markings. The tour of the cave is at the moment only in Spanish, however with its new found fame, one would hope this might change in the near future. Entrance is 3€, and it’s a good idea to book online or by phone in advance, as they run reduced groups in some periods for conservation reasons. Don’t expect to be able to turn up and go in straight away.
This cave is in the same complex as the Cueva del Castillo, but the visit is a separate one, and will cost an additional 3€. Also an interesting cave, and often offered as an alternative to those who turn up to El Castillo without booking first! Follow signs to Cueva del Castillo.
Walkers: If you visit either El Castillo or Las Monedas, it is worth walking up to the top of the cone shaped hill that these two caves are in. The marked track leaves from the car park (not the one going up to the caves), and passes through a eucalyptus forest, past further caves, a lovely view point and up to the peak of the hill where there are wonderful views and a small ermita.
Just south of Ramales de la Victoria, the Cueva de Covalanas has a limit of 7 people on its guided tours, and therefore it is essential to book in advance if you don’t want to be disappointed. Believed to have been inhabited as many as 45,000 years ago, it houses paintings and markings in 2 galleries in what is an intimate, close up tour. Parking is possible on the track below the cave where there is also a picnic area, and there is a steep 10 minute walk up the gravel track to the entrance, from where the tour starts, don’t wait at the bottom for the guide or you will miss your tour! Entrance is 3€.
Walkers: You can make a bit more out of this trip by parking in Ramales and following the PR S 22 signposted path up to the caves (2km). There are picnic tables with a wonderful view just before you reach the parking area.
Climbers: There are lots of climbing routes up the rocks either side of the cave, ask in Ramales or the cave guide for details and see the post on Via Ferrata in Cantabria.
Closer still to Ramales de la Victoria, in fact, within 5 minutes walk of the town centre, with a seriously impressive cave mouth and beautiful surroundings (it’s worth just going to have a look at the mouth, even if you don’t go in). There are guided tours of this cave, and of all the caves in Cantabria it is by far the best conditioned for wheels (wheelchair accessible, pushchair accessible), and great for kids. The cave paintings are not visitable and are not part of the tour, as they are too far inside the cave, the main draw here is just how massive the cave is inside, and the easy access. The walkway extends only 400m into the cave, but its still worth a visit and is a great “starter” cave for Cantabria (if you’re going to see this and Covalanas, definitely see this one first). Entrance is 3€ and group sizes can go up to 30 here if necessary. There is no car park at the cave itself, you must park in the town centre or a bit awkwardly on the road leading up to it and walk the 400m to the cave (signposted). There are toilets and a small information/ticket centre at the entrance.
Located in Escobedo de Carmargo, near Puente Arce, and relatively well signposted amongst the maze of lanes, this cave has one great panel of paintings, right at the back, mainly deer and horses. It is in a lovely setting, and the real wow factor of the cave is actually what it would have been like pre the entrance roof collapse many moons ago – a huge huge cavern with potentially many more paintings. On wet days both the approaching path and the entrance to the cave itself can be both muddy and slippery. Guided tours are bookable in advance and entrance is again 3€. There is a toilet in the information kiosk – ask for the key. As there is a lot of important explanation at the start of the tour, understanding Spanish is somewhat helpful in this cave, or some good pre-visit reading.
In Tarriba, just beyond San Felices de Buelna and well signposted off the A67 motorway and through the villages (it takes about 20 minutes from the motorway), this is one of the smallest, tightest and most personal of all the visitable caves in Cantabria. Groups are limited to just 4 people, and you must book in advance at least 1 day before (there is no office here, the guides come from nearby El Castillo). From experience I would say that if you have claustrophobia, or mobility problems, best to avoid this one, but if you want an intimate view and tour of paintings, i.e. the guide tells you to turn around and there’s one in front of your face, and to get the 100% darkness experience, this is the one to go for, it really is something special. The guide we had spoke very little English, but did speak French. You’ll need walking boots and don’t wear your best clothes. Parking is in a layby just belond the track up to the cave, and further on up the track there’s a lovely picnic spot with benches and BBQs by a stream (and further up still there is an even bigger picnic area). Entrance is 3€ again, although there is also an extended visit at certain times which is 15€.
This cave in Rionansa is closed to visitors for most of the year, opening only on certain days for very limited visits throughout the year, and in August (in 2013 at least). Check out the website for information about opening times. Usually the site simply says that it is closed to visitors at present, so keep checking back for updates if you’re really interested. Entrance is 15€. This is my last cave left to visit!
This is a curious open cave located in Rasines, eastern Cantabria, and (not very well) signposted in the village. The area, dubbed (very loosely) as a “Paleolithic Park”, consists of firstly a parking area with picnic tables, then a 5 minute walk down to the “Paleolithic Park” with lots of curiosities, including a life-sized mammoth, little rivers and bridges and the large cave mouth itself, which is completely open, and fun to explore and see who dares go the furthest in! If you look carefully you can see stalagmites and stalagtites forming in certain places as you scramble around. No paintings have been found in this cave, but they did find evidence of human habitation – decorated horns, spear points, harpoons etc (now in the MUPAC museum in Santander). The whole area has been rather poorly looked after, after what was clearly a lovely project to begin with, but it’s still interesting to visit and explore if you’re going past anyway on the N629, and especially fun for kids.