Fast Facts

  • Location: near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain
  • Attraction Type: Paleolithic Cave Paintings
  • Significance: Ancient Cave Paintings, Paleolithic relics, history, heritage, art, museum
  • Best Time to visit: You can visit Altamira at any time of the year. But it is advisable that you avoid the intense summer months between June and August.
  • How to Reach: To reach Altamira, you first have to arrive at Santillana del Mar, and proceed to the cave site. From Santander, take the highway to Torrelavega and exit at Requejada, from there take a right turn to take the CA-131 and reach Santillana del Mar. You can also exit at Puente San Miguel and take CA-133 to Santillana del Mar. The town can also be approached from Asturias by following the N-634 to Puente San Miguel and then the CA-133 road. From Madrid, Bilbao or Palencia, arrive at Torrlevega and proceed towards Santillana del Mar from there. To come from Comillas, take the CA-131 road.
  • Nearest Airport: Aeropuerto de Santander

These are the oldest definitive masterpieces of the world, preceded only by the handiworks of Mother Nature. Using the most basic materials and executed on the roughest of surfaces, these masters of yore created animal and anthropomorphic features in polychrome and virtually breathed life in them. Today, 35,000 years after their creation, the paintings of Altamira Cave continue to fascinate us with their power, delicacy, close attention to detail and the sheer observational skill and artistic sensibility of the creators.

Discovery of Altamira

The Altamira Cave complex was accidentally discovered in 1868, as a part of a hunting expedition. Marcelino de Sautuola, a nobleman from Santander and, was the first one credited to understand the significance of the cave by looking at the ancient bones. Signs of upper Paleolithic living were immediately discovered. It included animal hides and bones, as well as ceremonial staves and carving on the shoulder bones of animals. However, it was on the ceiling or the roof of the central chamber of the cave that the real surprise laid. Nobody noticed it before Maria, Sautuola’s daughter in 1879, who immediately attracted the attention of her father towards the paintings of the bulls! Convinced of its antiquity, Sautuola announced the cave to the world.

In the early years of its discovery, scholars were quick to dismiss it, because of the surprising quality of the preservation and the supreme mastery in their execution as a later day forgery. However, once the carbon dating procedures in the early part of the 20th century corroborated its authenticity, it became one of the greatest wonders of the world. The steady flow of tourists forced authorities to restrict admission to preserve the works, which were prone to damage because of Carbon Dioxide emissions from the visitors.

Altamira Paintings

The central hall of Altamira, with about 18 meters by 9 meters in space and between 1.15 meters and 2.65 meters in height, is the place where most of the paintings are located. The paintings of Altamira are typically polychrome, using black, red and ochre. The colors were limited by the materials that these ancient artists found at their disposal. However, these colors have been used to great effect to create illusions of depth, foreshortening, and texture. The paintings are not of one age, but belong to at least two different ages.

The earliest paintings are of anthropomorphic figures. There are images of hands imprints and outlines of palms as well. Some symbolic paintings of stairs and staves exist, although none is sure of the meanings. The great animal figures of Altamira belong to a later day, largely during the Magdalenian period. These paintings are of monumental dimensions. The red deer itself occupies over two meters of space. Bison figures are the most common motif. There are about fifteen bison figures in different postures, and many boars, horses, as well as a red hind. The creation of textures for skin, tail, and mane is absolutely unbelievable. Equally fascinating is the way the artists used the contours of the cave wall to their own advantage, turning them into motifs within the painting itself.

Altamira Tour Details

A tour to Altamira is not one you can plan at the drop of a hat. Entry is restricted. Not more than 160 visitors are allowed every week. Bookings need to be done at least three years in advance. However, visitors can get a taste of the original works by the excellent replica that is created at the Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigacion de Altamira, which has a true copy of the cave in a recreated construction. Created at a cost of 25.5 million Euros, this is an unbelievably true and authentic reconstruction of the original work. Immensely popular, this replica attracted as many as 2 million visitors in the first four months.

Where to Stay

There is only one hotel in Altamira, a three-star hotel known as Holiday Inn Altamira. However, there are quite a few hotels in Santillana del Mar, the town near which the site is located. Hotel Casa Del Marques, Hotel Posada Casona de los Guelitos, Hotel Colegiata, and Parador de Santillana are some of the popular hotels in the city.

You can also look for accommodation options in the town of Santander, from where Altamira is only 30 km away. Some of the hotels in Santander include Hotel San Juan, Hotel Rocamar, Posada El Remanso de Triviecu, and Hotel Vista park. The hotels offer great accommodation facilities at highly affordable rates.

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