Spain’s Cantabrian Coast: fascinating prehistoric heritage

Have you ever wondered what life was like 35,000 years ago? You can discover all this along the northern coast of Spain, at some of the 18 prehistoric caves which have the UNESCO World Heritage designation on account of their variety, beauty, cave paintings and excellent state of conservation. Come and discover this major area of Spain’s countryside, protected for its unique character and universal value. Feel like a real discoverer as you contemplate the marks left behind by our ancestors.

In July 2008, UNESCO granted the World Heritage designation to the Palaeolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast (northern Spain): a total of 17 prehistoric caves that went to complete the recognition granted by this organisation in 1985 to one of the most valuable caves in the world: Altamira, in Santillana del Mar. Come and discover all the caves that are open for visits, along with some true-to-life reproductions of this unique area with an incredible journey back in time in the beautiful Regions of the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias, which all form part of the Green Spain area. Welcome to the legacy of history. Welcome to a real symbol that has lasted through to our time.

In northwestern Spain is the Region of Asturias, one of the areas where paintings from the early Palaeolithic period will show you an ancient world of beliefs. Its World Heritage caves date from 35,000-9,000 BC. Here we suggest visits to the following: Peña de Candamo with its Hall of Etchings, Llonín Cave (Peñamellera Alta) with its paintings of deer, Pindal (Rivadedeva) set surrounded by cliffs overlooking the Cantabrian Sea with unusual representations of a mammoth and a fish, along with Tito Bustillo Cave (Ribadesella) with male and female sexual figures and a gallery with one of the most beautiful examples of a horse from the Palaeolithic period.

You will be amazed by the way the natural colouration of rock is used and by the objects discovered in caves such as Tito Bustillo – spatulas and harpoons made in bone. In the dark of the caves, these figures, age-old witnesses to the passing of time, seem to come to life.

The Region of Cantabria is located to the east of Asturias and is also a vital stop on your voyage into prehistory. There you will find World Heritage caves that constitute an underground journey into the origins of abstract thought. The “jewel in the crown” is Altamira Cave, known as the “Sistine Chapel of Quaternary art”. There is an exceptional, exact replica of it at the Altamira Museum where you can see the amazing paintings of bison. You can also visit the caves of El Castillo and Las Monedas, both in Puente Viesgo. El Castillo Cave has one of Europe’s largest ensembles of prehistoric art: 275 figures (bison, wild bulls, a mammoth, references to the human form…), proof of the presence of Homo sapiens, and more exciting still, evidence of the beginnings of art in mankind. Las Monedas Cave is very close by. You will be awestruck by its hall with 17 animal figures and by its spectacle of coloured stalactites. Feel its mystical atmosphere.

Not to be forgotten are the caves of Chufín (in Ciclones, with access by boat), Hornos de la Peña (in Tarriba), El Pendo (in Escobedo de Camargo, where objects like a walking stick have been discovered) and Covalanas (in Ramales de la Victoria). In all of these you will find artistic representations, each more interesting than the last: paintings in intense shades of red, human and animal figures, and etchings carried out using a range of techniques.

Major efforts in recreation

Although the remaining World Heritage caves on the Cantabrian Coast cannot be visited at this time, all the different Regions are working hard to offer replicas and other projects so that tourists can enjoy them. This is the case of the Basque Country, with the caves of Santimamiñe (Vizcaya), Altxerri and Ekain (both in Gipúzcoa). The Santimamiñe Caves, at the foot of Mount Ereñozar, offer a virtual visit where you can enjoy their amazing stalagmites and stalactites, as well as their cave paintings of bison, deer and wild bulls. Ekain Cave, for its part, is one of Europe’s most important prehistoric sanctuaries, and a replica cave is due to be opened where guided tours will help you discover how the men and women of this site once lived. Once you are there, pay close attention because you will have before you 70 drawings that the cave inhabitants created 14,000 years ago.

Practical information

The majority of caves have free car parks close by and you can get right to them either by car or on foot. There are also train and bus services to nearby towns and villages. When you visit these archaeological gems, we recommend you travel with comfortable clothing and footwear for damp terrain. Once at the caves, you will be able to take guided tours in small groups.

Don’t miss the chance to discover as many caves as possible – each one is unique. Let your imagination run free. Travel back into prehistory and discover the evidence of a long-disappeared age, of early men and women who were, nevertheless, the ancestors of all of us.  

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