Cantabria is world famous for its caves and cave paintings, most of them having UNESCO status. 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 formation-filled cavities, but the highlight is at the far end of the visit, to the chamber of helictites, gravity defying beautiful white formations, which are simply 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 off the main road to Puentenansa and is well signposted from all directions – 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 and mountains beyond.
PREHISTORIC CAVES – all the following caves are UNESCO World Heritage Sites
First a little note about visiting these caves in English. Unless you are a booked group, visits are in Spanish only. Some, but not all, guides speak English, and some French. If there are any Spanish people in your group when you visit a cave, the visit will always be conducted in Spanish. However, if you are lucky and you find yourself alone or solely with other English people, if the guide speaks English, they will conduct the visit in English for you. For example, on a recent visit to El Castillo, first slot of the morning at 0940, our group of 3 were the only people there, so the guide (lovely Luis) guided for us in (excellent) English. However, we then went to Las Monedas an hour later, and there were a Spanish couple there with us, and therefore he conducted the visit in Spanish (and gave me time to translate for my father!). He did speak English, and was dropping the odd word in so my father could follow, which was good of him. In my experience, as a large part of these cave visits is visual, and if you have some knowledge and understanding of caves, then it is still possible to follow a visit, even if it is in Spanish.
Cantabria is home to the world famous Altamira Cave and their 18,500 year old paintings of bison and other animals. 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 currently no visitors to the cave at all), however there is an extremely good replica and accompanying museum. The information boards in the museum are in English, and videos have English subtitles too. It is located very close to Santillana del Mar, and clearly signposted from both Santillana and Cerrazo. 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.
Another idea… Ever wonderded what it would be like to see bison such as those painted at Altamira wandering “wild” in the countryside? You can of course see bison at the Cabarceno Nature Park in Cantabria, but there is actually a place not so far away where you can see them roaming semi-free and hike amongst them! I’m saying this quietly, because it’s not actually in Cantabria…but just over Cantabria’s southern border in San Cebrián de Mudá in the north of Palencia. It’s a small bison reserve called BisonBonasus, and you can choose to walk or cycle to see them (in groups of less than 10), to see them by jeep tour or see them by horse drawn cart. Entry is from €6 and it’s only open weekends and bank holidays.
The Cueva de El Castillo, above Puente Viesgo, is becoming increasingly well known as more and more is discovered about the age and importance of its fantastic, large range of paintings. Personally, this would be my first port of call for caves in Cantabria, as here you get easy access to the real thing – here you’ll get a close look at the 40,000-year-old curious negative 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 (and see the note above about English visits). Entrance is 3€, and it’s a good idea to book online or by phone in advance, as although group sizes are bigger than at many of the caves mentioned below, they are still relatively small (max 15 low season, 13 high season). So don’t expect to be able to turn up and go in straight away, although you might be lucky off season. Also bear in mind that you must present yourself at the information desk to collect your tickets 30 minutes before your allotted time, and also that the floor of this cave can be very slippery, wear appropriate footwear. There are toilets, and a small indoor seating area with vending machines, plus a small souvenir area in reception.
This cave is in the same hill as the Cueva del Castillo, but the visit is a separate one, and also costs 3€, the ticket office being the same as El Castillo. Also an interesting cave, and often offered as an alternative to those who turn up to El Castillo without booking first, Las Monedas only has one small area of paintings, however they are very interesting, and close up and personal. The real draw of this cave is the geology and formations inside the cave, and as such, the floor of this cave is also very slippery and wet, so appropriate footwear is advised. Follow signs to Cueva del Castillo, and if you’re intending to visit both caves, make sure you leave at least 60 minutes between each booking to allow time to do one tour and get to the other as there is a 700m (pretty flat) walk between the two.
Walkers: If you visit either El Castillo or Las Monedas, it is worth walking up to the top of the cone shaped Pico Castillo which houses these two caves. The marked track (PR S 17) actually starts down in the town itself, so it is possible to leave your car in the car park in the centre and walk up from there. If you don’t fancy all of that, you can start from the car park at the caves and look for the panel and signs leading up a track on the far side (not the one going up to the caves themselves). This passes quite steeply up at first through the eucalyptus forest, past further caves and openings, and a couple of lovely view points, before continuing up to reach the peak of the hill where there are wonderful 360º views and a small ermita and the large cross you can see from below (and a couple of trees for a shady picnic).
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 highly recommended 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 some fantastic paintings of mainly deer and horses and markings in 2 galleries in what is an intimate, close up tour, with an extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. If you are looking for a personal, close up experience, but are put off the Chufín and Hornos de la Peña caves due to their tight spaces, this is the one for you, as it is intimate and impressive without the need to get on your knees! Parking is possible on the track below the cave where there is also a picnic area overlooking Ramales and the valley (great views from the cave mouth too over Pico San Vicente), and there is a steep 10 minute walk up the gravel track to the entrance, from where the tour starts – give yourself time for this and 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). As mentioned above, there are picnic tables with a wonderful view just before you reach the parking area. This route can also be extended, detouring to the cave, by doing the Vuelta al Moro walk.
Climbers: There are lots of popular 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 – you’ll feel the cold blast of cave area before the entrance is even visible). Of all the caves in Cantabria, this is the only one (apart from the Altamira replica) conditioned for wheels (wheelchair accessible, pushchair accessible), and is 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 (it was used to store army vehicles during the Civil War), and the easy access. The walkway extends only 400m into the cave, so the tour is not long, 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 very impressive panel of paintings, mainly deer and horses, right at the back of the cave, down several sets of stairs. It is in a lovely setting, and the real wow factor of the cave is actually imagining and understanding what it would have been like before the entrance roof collapsed many moons ago – a vast cavern with potentially many more paintings (as it stands now, you are walking over the debris of the roof collapse, so the cave entrance appears much smaller). 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 inside the information kiosk – ask for the key. As there is a lot of important and enthusiastic explanation at the start of the tour, understanding Spanish is somewhat helpful in this cave, or some good pre-visit reading.
And… you’ll notice a rather out-of-place modern white building on the far side of the small car park El Pendo. This is in fact a newly opened winery, the Bodega El Pendo.
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 or services 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, you’re going to get a bit dirty! 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€ (looking forward to doing this soon and reporting back!).
This cave near Riclones (Nansa valley) is closed to visitors for most of the year, opening only on certain days over the Easter weekend, sometimes for very limited visits throughout the year, and in August, partly for conservation reasons and partly due to accessibility issues. Group sizes are limited to 6 people, which can also make gettting tickets an issue, and also means advance booking is practically essential (you can do this online). Check out the website for information about opening times. Sometimes the site simply says that it is closed to visitors at present, so keep checking back for updates and use the calendar to help you. With an entrance fee of €15, it’s more expensive than the other caves in Cantabria as a result of its limited opening, but the visit is also pretty special. The cave is well signposted and the information and ticket kiosk (no toilet) is located just past the rural village of Riclones (which has two beautifully located picnic benches next to the bus stop) and this is where you leave your car. The guide then takes the group by people carrier a few more kilometres down the road, and from there there is a very pretty (but muddy) 800m walk to the cave, through fields and woods. It’s located just above a small reservoir at the confluence of the Nansa and Lamasón rivers, hence the accessibility issues as the path floods when the reservoir is high, and the guide stops on the way to explain some interesting historical info. It is definitely a good idea to wear good boots (for mud and slippery rocks) and trousers you don’t mind getting dirty, as on arrival at the cave, after seeing the etchings on rocks at the entrance, you have to literally crawl into the cave on your hands and knees! Once inside it opens out, but you have to be careful of your footing, and as it’s not lit, you’re guided only by your torch (1 provided to share in pairs). The cave is home to several paintings including that of a woman (very unusual) and is limited by the reservoir’s waters at the far end. Highly recommendable visit, worth the extra money, but be prepared to scramble and walk a bit, and choose a dry day if possible due to the inital walk.
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.