Cantabria is lucky enough to have several wildlife parks and zoos, each with their own special focus and appeal to visitors.
Without a doubt the most famous animal park in Cantabria, and probably the north of Spain, Cabarceno is located south of Santander, and is clearly signposted off the A8 and the N634. The park is beautifully located in an old iron mine, meaning that the landscape alone is impressive and in places stunning, and the animals enclosures have been cleverly fitted around the rusty red rock formations. It is run by Cantur, a government organisation (which runs many places in Cantabria including Alto Campoo ski station and the Fuente Dé cable car), and it’s a very animal concious park, with rescue facilities, taking in bear cubs found around Spain amongst other things. The park contains over 100 different species of animal, from the reptile house and farm areas to the huge elephant compound and treasured bear area (the oso pardo, which is native to Cantabria and still roams the Cordillera Cantabra). With the exception of the reptile house, all the enclosures are outdoors and open to the elements, and many are naturally formed from the rock formations left behind from the mining days. As you would expect from being a mine, the park is sprawled over the side of a hill, from the top of which there are stunning views of Santander and over the park itself, to the mountains beyond. There are twice daily birds of prey and seal/sealion shows on different sides of the park, and there are many services available, 2 restaurants inside, cafes, souvenir shops, toilets and picnic facilities scattered around the site. Although not a formal requirement, if you want to see everything a car is needed to go around (it is more like a safari park than a zoo in that respect), although they do encourage cyclists and walkers too. You pay from the comfort of your vehicle at one of the entrances to the park, and are given a map and a CD commentary in return for your payment. Green arrows on the ground direct you around the park, as there are many one way sections, and I cannot stress what a good idea it is to follow these!! If you think doing otherwise will get you ahead of the rest, you’ll soon find yourself regretting it (I speak from experience here!). As one of Cantabria’s biggest tourist attractions, the park can be one long traffic jam at the height of summer or on bank holiday weekends, you will notice this before you even get to the gates of the park. Unless you are restricted to that particular day, personally if you find those type of queues, I would try and come back another day, or be ready to have a very slow visit taking most of the day. It’s also a good idea to arrive well in time for the bird or seal shows at any time of the year, as they fill up quickly, and can also cause traffic and parking problems as everyone floods in to see them. They really are worth making the effort to get to though, in fact personally I would plan my timing of the visit around them, check out the map and show times on the website, the birds of prey show especially is the closest I’ve ever had a vulture fly to my head! It is now possible to buy tickets for Cabarceno online in advance too, and you should really set aside a whole day to do it, pack a picnic and take advantage of one of their various picnic spots.
Located on the outskirts of Santillana del Mar, signposted off the S480 just after the roundabout, this zoo is home to over 3,000 animals. The enclosures are much more zoo like than Cabarceno, and much smaller, but the monkey area is wonderful, with a huge variety of species, and there is a small but lovely butterfly house. There is a market circuit of the zoo to make sure you don’t miss anything, and it takes around 2 hours to do the whole thing, longer than it looks like it might. The zoo is a popular attraction in Santillana, and has many child-orientated activites, as well as many animals being sponsored by local children and businesses. There is a souvenir shop, cafe-bar, and picnic area. Their website also includes a birthday calendar for some of the animals!
In the picturesque town of Lieganes, this ecomuseum focuses on the flora and fauna of local rivers and river basins. It is home to otters, fish and other river animals, and is a fun trip for kids in what is a beautiful town.
Whilst not techinally a zoo, the Magdalena Peninsula in Santander is the curious home to a colony of penguins and sealions. What was previously a more substantial collection of animals on the left hand side of the entrance to the peninsula park, has now been whittled down to these two species, and a collection of ducks in what was previously a lion enclosure. Free to walk around and with lovely views back over the Sardinero, you can see them being fed twice a day, and it makes for a random surprise if you didn’t realise they were there!