Photo of Altamira Caves

Visit Altamira Caves

The Alatamira Caves are in the province of Cantabria in the region of Asturias and Cantabria. The caves are are 2km from the lovely village of Santillana del Mar.

Explore the Altamira Caves

The Altamira Caves contain some of the best pre-historic paintings in the world. They were painted by the Magdalenian people around 15,000 years ago.

The paintings are superb, using rich colours of ochre and red and black and using the rock itself to add a third dimension to the paintings - quite a significant advance on other cave paintings. Picasso said, after visiting the caves, "after Altamira, all is decadence".

The paintings are mostly of bison, obviously very important to prehistoric man for meat and fur, but also include wild boar, deer and horses. Interestingly, like the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region of France which are from a similar period, there is no vegetation depicted - just animals. Also like Lascaux there are a number of signs the meaning of which we don't know.

Altamira bison

The paintings were first discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and was the first discovery of Paleolithic cave art. At first the authenticity of the caves was disputed but once its authenticity was established visitor numbers gradually grew.

In 1973, 174,000 people visited the caves and it became evident that the visitor numbers was having a serious effect on the caves. A black mould started to cover the paintings caused by increased humidity due to the breath of visitors .

In 1977 the caves were closed to the general public to protect the paintings. In 1982 it was decided to build an exact replica of the caves, this was opened in 2001 and enables visitors to see the splendour of the paintings.


One of the most impressive parts of the cave is the Polychrome ceiling which depicts a here of bison along with two horses and a deer.  All in all these caves contain a very large number and remarkable quality of paintings and is considered to be one of the most important in the world - hence the UNESCO status given to them.

A small number of visitors are allowed to the original caves each year but the waiting list is very long. The new cave though is an exact reproduction and the full skill and beauty of the caves is there to see. There is also a museum with a reproduction of a Palaeolithic camp and an interesting exhibition of cave art.

Polychrome ceiling

The Altamira Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2007 the Altamira Caves were voted second of the top twelve 'Treasures of Spain' in a national TV and radio competition.

Places to visit nearby

Another cave worth visiting in the region are the caves of Puente Viesgo. Places are limited but visits are to the original caves. The paintings are excellent though not as advanced as those of Altamira.

The nearby Santillana del Mar is a charming town said by Picasso to be one of the most beautiful in Spain. It is a good base for visiting the area.

Comillas is another beautiful town and has some great Modernista architecture including a building by Gaudi.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Asturias and Cantabria guide.

See also: 

Map of Altamira Caves and places to visit


Altamira Caves places to visit

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar is perhaps the highlight of a visit to this part of Spain. It is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.

Santillana del Mar guide


Comillas is a very good resort which has lots of Modernista buildings including the El Capricho designed by Antoni Gaudi.

Comillas guide
Puente Viesgo

Puente Viesgo

Puente Viesgo is a lovely village in a beautiful setting and has some excellent caves full of stalactites, stalagmites and lots of prehistoric paintings.

Puente Viesgo guide
Barcena Mayor

Barcena Mayor

Barcena Mayor is a picturesque village with lots of the typically balconied houses of the region. Situated in the Cabuerniga Valley.

Barcena Mayor guide


Santander is the lively capital of Cantabria and has a popular seaside suburb of El Sardinero.

Santander guide
Alto Campoo

Alto Campoo

Alto Campoo is a small ski resort in the Picos de Europa. It is particularly suited to beginner and intermediate level skiers.

Alto Campoo guide

...or see all our recommended places to visit in Asturias and Cantabria