The Cave Of Altamira – a UNESCO site in Northern Spain

Last updated Dec 22, 2021
The Cave of Altamira

You have to see it to believe it. And yet you can’t see it. Well, you can but you can only see a replica of it. It’s fascinating, amazing, and sad – all at once. This UNESCO world heritage site is something different, that’s for sure. Read all about our visit to the Cave of Altamira and why the emotions tend to run wild here. Be prepared to be amazed and add this place to your bucket list.

The Cave of Altamira has an interesting story

The old paintings in the Altamira caves
The Cave of Altamira - a UNESCO site
Many of the drawings used the natural contours of the rocks to enhance their shape and volume.

The year was 1879 when amateur archaeologist Maecelino Sanz de Sautuola found a cave while out with his eight year old daughter. Inside the cave where lots of paintings where the oldest date back as far as 36 000 years or 20 000 years (they can’t determine the exact years). They were very well persevered because the cave had collapsed and somehow locked the paintings and left them untouched for centuries.

When the archeologist showed his findings, the reactions were probably not what he had expected. He was accused of forgery and that the paintings weren’t real. This was due to the conditions of the paintings, that they looked too good. It was first 14 years after his death that he got recognition and the cave paintings were recognized as authentic. Since then a lot has happened – both good and bad.

The Cave of Altamira was opened to tourism (1970)

The Cave of Altamira - a UNESCO site in Northern Spain
The old paintings in the Altamira caves
Just to let you know how old these paintings are. The Bison laying down is dated 14500 BP (before present) If anyone knows how to convert that feel free to leave a comment below.

The cave is about 1 000 meters long and it used to be inhabited by different people and different groups over the years. 13 000 years ago, the cave collapsed and ended up being closed until the archeologist found it. The paintings that are inside the cave are from several different years and eras and are not all made by the same artist. The drawings show bison, hands and horses, and several different animals.

During the 1970s the cave was opened to the public and tourists flocked here to come and see the cave paintings. In the end, there were so many people coming and going to the cave that the paintings started being damaged. The damage was made by the carbon dioxide and water vapor in the breath of the visitors. How insane is that? That means that a lot of people were visiting the cave.

The Cave of Altamira closes to tourism (2002)

The Cave of Altamira - a UNESCO site

In 1977, the cave finally closed to the public. In 1982, it reopened and only allowed a controlled number of visitors to see the cave paintings. This made it almost impossible to visit the cave since the waiting list was three years! In the year 2002, the cave was closed again. This time it was because there was green mold began to appear on some of the cave paintings.

In 2010, there were plans to reopen the cave yet again and allow visitors to come and see the paintings. A group of experts found that the conservation conditions inside the cave had become much more stable since the closure and that the paintings were doing better. With that in mind, the Spanish Ministry of Culture decided that the cave would remain to be closed to the public.

Visit the Cave of Altamira

Now, this might sound a bit weird if you just read the paragraph above. If the cave closed in 2002, how can you visit it today? The answer is that you both can and can’t. See, in 2001 there was a replica of the cave built along with a museum. The cave and its art were reproduced and today you can see it inside the replica. The real cave can only be seen from the outside.

The original cave of Altamira with the original paintings is closed
The original cave of Altamira with the original paintings is closed to preserve the paintings.

There’s a sign outside of the museum’s temporary exhibition. However, from here you can’t see the cave. The best way to see it is to go to the house 1924. From there you will be able to see the door that leads into the actual cave. It is said that some of the paintings inside the replica of the cave are more visible than they are today in the real cave. That is for instance some of the human faces.

Amazing and fascinating and sad all at once

The Cave of Altamira - a UNESCO site

So, we ended up visiting the ”new” cave with the paintings. It’s incredibly well made and it feels like being inside the cave. I believe that this is a more comfortable way of seeing the paintings without destroying anything for future generations. At the same time, I can’t help but get a bit sad. Sad because we are not allowed to see the actual cave. Sad because tourists ended up destroying the original paintings. And finally sad because this UNESCO world heritage has been compromised.

And at the same time, I’m happy. Happy that they found a way for us to still enjoy the cave paintings. Happy that the original paintings won’t get damaged anymore. And happy that we are getting to see this awesome place at all! The paintings are incredible. They are detailed and it’s hard to grasp that they are so old. Even if they are replicas, they are still made as the originals and they are oh so impressive.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1985, Altamira cave was listed as a UNESCO world heritage. In fact, there are several more caves in northern Spain that are included in the heritage. The UNESCO sites are the Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain. In total, there are 17 different caves that are included on the list. I believe that the most special one is the one in Altamira since it’s included in the name.

We have not visited any of the other places that are included so we can’t say anything about them. However, a visit to the Cave of Altamira is a must. Make sure to also visit the museum while being here and not only visit the cave. The museum is just as interesting and it has many artifacts that are well worth seeing. Another impressive thing is that the entrance fee only costs 3 euros. Worth every penny! And if you are in Altamira, make sure to visit the small town of Santillana del Mar.

Museo de Altamira

The museum at Altamira

At the museum, you’ll get to learn more about how the cave paintings were actually made. Your visit to the cave starts with a short movie about the history of the caves and then you visit the actual paintings. After that, head to the museum for a complete visit. My absolute favorite was a painting with a skull made as to the map of Africa. Or maybe, it was the other way around 🤔.

Another thing I really appreciated at the museum was how nicely they showed the making of the paintings. You can follow it step by step and be impressed by the artists. Because that’s for sure – those people were artists. Different cave paintings from different places. Replicas mixed with the originals. Finds from excavations in the area and lots of artifacts.

Take your time visiting the museum

The museum at Altamira
The museum at Altamira

Different tools and kitchen utensils. Some of them wouldn’t be recognizable unless the signs were there. Other things are beautifully decorated and so impressive. It’s interesting to see that people that lived 40 000 years ago were just as vain as we are today. Necklaces made out of shells and antlers decorated and engraved with nice art. Another favorite of mine was also a jacket.

The jacket is made out of walrus intestine and was made during the 18th century. It was made as a raincoat to help the hunters and gatherers to be protected by wind and water. Did I say that we were impressed? The best advice we can give you when you are planning a trip to this place is to take your time. If you are driving a motorhome (like we did) no worries. The parking is big and spacious so you can easily park outside of the complex.

Information about the Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira - a UNESCO site

Address: Santilla del Mar, 39330 Cantabria.
Opening hours: Tuesday – Saturday 09.30 – 20.00. Sunday: 09.30 – 15.00.
Entrance fee: 3 euros per adult.
Website of the cave and the museum.


  1. Mário Saldanha

    Olá como estão? Tenho-os acompanhado desde que vos conheci em Vila Franca de Xira – PORTUGAL e têm feito um trabalho extraordinário. São adoráveis.
    Também vos quero transmitir que já estive em Santilhana del Mar e nas Grutas/Museu de Altamira e também fiquei impressionado. Em Santilhana há muitos museus, mas um que me impressionou bastante foi um do tempo da inquisição, onde são expostos os instrumentos de tortura.
    Continuação do vosso projeto de vida eu acompanhar-vos-ei até um dia nos reencontrar-nos.

  2. Trevor Halliday

    The caves were open in the 1950s I visited in1957 an art student from England.

    • Daniel Majak

      Thank you for commenting!
      Wow so you where there in the beginning. Today I think it looks a little bit different.


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