Altamira artwork
Europe,  Spain

Altamira caves – Cantabria’s prehistoric Sistine Chapel

There are a few things in this world that I tend to get a bit nerdy about. Trains are one. And Scandinavian crime drama. And history – I love history. Not just the museums and typical historic tourist destinations like the Tower of London or the Colosseum – I love all of those little everyday stories of normal people that, when you add them all up, make up the places that we visit today.

To be honest though, prehistory has never really been my thing. It just doesn’t grab my interest. I currently live less than an hour from Stonehenge and have never got round to visiting (I suppose I’ll try and fix that sometime this summer though, and check out the new visitor centre and neolithic buildings).

Museo de Altamira

But there was something about Altamira that draws you in. This World Heritage site cave, found in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast, is home to some of the earliest, and most complex, cave art in the world.

The history of Altamira

Altamira is just one of the 6,500 caves that litter the limestone landscape of the area. Of these,1,800 can be visited and nine are part of the UNESCO world heritage cave complex that covers the wider area of northern Spain.

Altamira artwork

The oldest artwork in Altamira has been carbon-dated to 36,000 years old and the youngest to 13,000 – just before the rock collapse that sealed the cave off for thousands of years. This means that the cave for active for over 20,000 years.

Altamira Cantabria

The long time-span of the paintings, combined with the high quality of the art mean that the caves have been nicknamed the ‘Prehistoric Sistine Chapel’. And not only are the paintings beautifully drawn, but they cleverly use the lumps and bumps of the cave roof as part of their design – so a small hole might become a horse’s eye or a crack might turn into part of a leg.

Altamira museum and the Neocave

Altamira was (re)discovered in 1879 by a man called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola – but it was his young daughter who first noticed the bison and horses painted on the ceiling of the cave. The site quickly began attracting visitors and by the 1970s, over 170,000 a year were filing through the cave.

Altamira Cave horse Altamira statue

 The high volume of visitors, combined with structural changes made to the cave to prevent collapse altered the environment inside the cave and put the paintings at risk. So after a short closure, followed by strict visitor quotas, construction started on a new museum that would contain an exact replica – called the Neocave - that would allow visitors to experience Altamira without damaging the world-famous art.

Altamira neocave

And when they say it’s an exact replica, they aren’t kidding. The topology of the cave was copied exactly and the paintings were added using the same materials and methods as the originals to let you experience what the cave was like just before entrance collapsed 15,000 years ago.

Altamira multimedia

They cleverly use multimedia to add to the effect – so you can see a projection of a neolithic family sitting round the campfire or see a video-enhanced information board that shows someone drawing using the same methods used in the cave.

Altamira for everyone

One of the main advantages of the Neocave apart, of course, from allowing the conservation of the original paintings, is that the beautiful prehistoric artwork is now accessible to everybody. The museum and the Neocave are fully accessible for wheelchairs and if you are deaf, you can get a special free tour with a guide trained in sign language.

Altamira Accessibility

The museum also does a good job of bringing the history of the era to life, with classes on hunting methods, fire lighting and plant resources. There’s also a range of exhibits in the museum that explain the culture and life of those that would have used the cave (although, interestingly, they didn’t actually live inside it on a day-to-day basis).

Altamira museum exhibit

So, yes, Altamira is really rather fascinating. Even if, like me, you’re not usually into prehistory, the excellent set-up, interpretation and superb Neocave combine to give a really immerse experience and really allow you to imagine what life was like over the 20,000 years that our ancestors lived and hunted in the area.


I visited Altamira as part of #CantabriaBlogTrip, hosted by the Spain in the UK and Cantabria Infinita. All opinions are my own.

Co-editor Emma is LWT's resident history lover and fact nerd. She loves travelling overland - especially by train. Her trips tend to be planned around good food and a little bit of adventure.


  • Ania

    That’s pretty cool. If you do decide you want to visit more caves, Kent’s Cavern in the Torquay area is quite interesting, although it doesn’t have cave art as far as I can remember!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: