Caves open to visit in Cantabria
The Cantabrian coast is one of the world's greatest areas for speleological study with 6,500 known caves in the region. Inside over 60 of these caves are fascinating examples of Paleolithic cave art, and 10 of these remarkable caves have been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.
Home to some of the first art ever created by man, these caves showcase a crucial point of human evolution where Homo Sapiens first showed artistic creativity. Cantabria's most famous cave art is undoubtedly the paintings of bison inside the Altamira cave. Important for the understanding of human social evolution as hunter-gatherers and cave dwellers, the cave paintings in Cantabria's caves are of historical and artistic interest to anthropologists. The caves themselves are a wonderland for geologists to explore with stunning rock formations and various unusual mineral compositions.
The cave of El Soploa is a geological marvel that has become one of the region's most popular attractions since it was opened to the public in 2005. Over 300,000 visitors descend into depths every year to discover the spectacular underground landscape that has earned El Soplao the nicknames 'Cathedral of World Geology' and 'Sistine Chapel of Geology'. A huge amber deposit, formed 110 million years ago and the only one of its kind in the world, has recently been found and is being studied by researchers.
Below are some of the most well-known caves for visitors. Most are open all year round, offering guided tours of the caves.
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Altamira - Santillana del Mar
Although the original cave is now closed to visitors to prevent deterioration of the paintings, you can explore the caves with the Neocave inside the museum - a complete reproduction of the cave and its artworks. The famous Chamber of the Polygones contains 20 paintings of large bison as well as various other animal and humanoid figures. In the Cola de Caballo, the well-known black masks are painted on the walls using the protuberances of the rock to create their images. A 300m cave with Paleolithic art covering the walls throughout, Altamira is an unmissable attraction in Cantabria. The museum also contains a permanent exhibition of 'The Times of Altamira' containing over 400 Paleolithic objects.
El Soplao - Rionansa
One of Cantabria's premier attractions, El Soplao is a natural subterranean paradise of suspended ceilings, stalactites, stalagmites, and eccentric and complex rock formations, filled with colours, smells and a remarkable interplay of light and shadow. With a huge amber deposit, the only one of its kind in the world (and the world's most important geological discovery from the Cretaceous period) the caves of El Soplao are a remarkable place. Visits can take the form of a tour that visits 1,500m of the cave or a more adventurous trip through 3,000km where you'll discover some truly spectacular rock formations. Outside the cave, you can view some of Cantabria's most stunning landscapes from the top of the sierra.
El Castillo - Puente Viesgo
One of several caves in the Monte de El Castillo, the El Castillo cave has been frequented by humans for at least 15,000 years. 275 figures of Upper Paleolithic art make for an intriguing subterranean tour into the origins of symbolism, abstract art and artistic expression.
Las Mondas - Puente Viesgo
The deepest of the Monte de El Castillo's caves, Las Mondas is one of Cantabria's most geologically beautiful caves with a mixture of colours created by the varied mineral compositions of the rock. 16th century coins were discovered near the top of the caves but deeper inside are some 17 animal figures in a side chamber that date from the glacial period around 10,000 BC, from the animals depicted.
El Pendo - Escobedo de Camargo
Thought to have been used during the Bronze Age for ritualistic purposes, particularly the making of offerings, El Pendo contains the 25m long Frieze of Paintings. Visible from every part of the main chamber, the frieze shows around 20 figures, painted in red, forming an altarpiece with other paintings of animals such as hinds and horses. It is uncertain when the frieze dates from but it is likely to be around 20,000 years ago.
Covalanas - Remales de la Victoria
Inhabited for at least 45,000 years, Covalanas is a small cave with 2 passages. Along the right hand passage are paintings of animal figures including 18 hinds and symbols of dots, lines and rectangles that are around 20,000 years old. The images are created with a technique of using dotted lines, made by the fingers, to create an outline that is very characteristic of the caves between the Nervión river basin and the river Sella - a strong indicator of the social networks and contact between Homo Sapien groups in this area.
Hornos de la Peña - Tarriba
The cave mouth is large and arched, facing south to catch the sun, and was inhabited by Neanderthals as well as later Homo Sapiens. A horse is carved into the mouth of the cave but further inside are some highly detailed images of horses, bison, goats, deer and a serpent-like creature. Most notable is an image of an animal-human hybrid with its arm raised and a long tail. Most of the figures in the cave are thought to date from the Magdalenian era 13,000 BC.
Chufin - Ciclones
Located in the beautiful valley of the Nansa river, Chufin has a large mouth area that was inhabited from 15,500 BC and has a great view of the valley that would have made it an excellent hunting lodge. Engraved animal figures can be found inside the mouth but deeper inside the cave is a large chamber containing an artificial lake created by the Palombera dam. It is inside this chamber where some intensely red paintings, some of which have been interpreted as genitals, as well as images of a horse, a stag and a feminine figure can be found. The paintings and engravings in the caves have been dated to 16,000 BC and 11,500 BC.