Expert-Led Group Tour

Spain Group Tour - Prehistoric Cave Art of Northern Spain

8 days

from £2,995pp
  • Visit the principal UNESCO World Heritage Paleolithic cave art sites of northern Spain
  • Gain insight into the art and archaeology of the sites with expert, interpretative guiding
  • Experience the culture, hospitality and cuisine of northern Spain
  • Travel along the rugged coastlines and mountain landscapes of Cantabria and Asturias

Discover the most significant Paleolithic art caves of northern Spain, all of them UNSECO World Heritage sites. Interpretative guided visits to actual sites, replicas and complementary museums provide a comprehensive experience of the art, which spans some 30,000 years, or over a thousand generations. Understand the archaeology of each site, gaining insight into this fascinating period of the human story, which marks the dawn of art and symbolic communication.

Why join this group tour?

If you are curious about the origins of man and the history of how man developed the capacity to communicate then this tour is for you. You will travel in the company of Charles Schwalbe, an expert on Paleolithic cave art so you can be sure to receive fascinating interpretation of everything you see. The trip visits all northern Spain’s most important Paleolithic sites and culminates with a tour of El Castillo cave – the most important site in the world for both Paleolithic art and archaeology with approximately 3,000 engraved, painted and sculpted hands, animals, symbols and anthropomorphic figures scanning a period of over 30,000 years. Many sites have been closed over time and access has been strictly limited to others. The opportunity to visit some of these sites may not be available in the future as further conservation measures could be adopted.

Is this group tour suitable for solo travellers? 

Our group tours are perfect for solo travellers, as travelling as part of an organised group in faraway places does provide security and peace of mind. We handle all the arrangements for you and there will be a guide on hand throughout to provide advice and help if needed. If you are willing to share, we will always do our best to match you up with another solo traveller of the same sex so that you do not have to pay for a single room.

If you would prefer the privacy of your own room and would like this guaranteed, then the single room price supplement will apply.

How fit should I be to enjoy this tour? 

Anyone with mobility or fatigue issues may find some of the sites too strenuous. Most replicas and museums are accessible to everyone. The real cave sites require hikes of up to 600 meters on uneven and somewhat steep terrain, or a bit longer walk of up to 1.5 kilometres on flatter terrain. Inside the caves there is generally uneven ground with some slippery/muddy areas. Many of the caves involve stairs, some over one hundred of them, and most without handrails. One of the caves visited involves walking while crouched for some distance, a sideways walk through a tight area that is not suitable for extra-large/tall individuals and a short crawl on stairs on your hands and feet. This is not meant to discourage you, simply to make you aware of the physical demands of some of the sites. People with a good general fitness level who feel comfortable with the issues described should not have any problem.

Do I need any special equipment for this tour?

Comfortable footwear with a tread on the sole is highly recommended as flat soled shoes are not suited to the slippery and uneven surfaces in the caves. A warm layer such as a polar fleece or sweater is recommended as temperatures in the caves are 9 to 13C year-round with very high humidity levels, over 90%. Umbrellas will be provided, but a rain jacket is always a good idea as it can rain anytime in northern Spain. Caves are lit with a few exceptions, where torches will be provided for you (personal lighting is not permitted in the caves due to conservation reasons). For conservation reasons, photography, video and mobile phones are not permitted in the caves but are allowed at most museums and some replicas.

What is the food like in Spain? 

Cuisine in northern Spain is based on traditional, fresh seasonal fare with excellent vegetables, legumes, seafood (fish and shellfish), meat and dairy. The food is generally Mediterranean and olive oil based, and you can also enjoy traditional hearty stews of the area, such as cocido montañes in Cantabria or fabada asturiana in Asturias. Spain has excellent wines, including nice local coastal and Rueda white wines and more traditional red wines from Rioja or Ribera del Duero.

What will the weather be like in northern spain in september? 

Northern Spain has a marked Atlantic climate influenced by the Cantabrian sea and mountains. Therefore, weather is quite variable. Temperatures in September will be warm with an average of 19C. Early September should bring a respite from summer’s warmer, yet relatively mild days and some of the year’s most colourful sunsets.

Departing on:
  • 3rd September 2018

For a detailed itinerary or to book your place on this tour, please contact us.

STARTFINISHPrice Excluding Flights £Flight cost fromSingle SupplementTour LecturerStatus 
3rd Sep 2018 10th Sep 2018 £ 2,995 £ 200 call Charles Schwalbe Available

Itinerary at a glance

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Day 1

Suggested group flights
The suggested group outbound flight for this tour is:

British Airways BA466, scheduled to depart London Heathrow at 08:35 on Monday 03 September, arriving into Bilbao at 11:30

An arrival transfer will be provided to connect with this flight. You will be met at the arrivals hall by a member of our local team and transferred to the hotel.

For those making their own way to Bilabo and not taking the suggested group flight, the starting point for the group, please speak to one of our team should you need help organising an arrival transfer. You will meet with the rest of the group for a short briefing at the arrival hotel - meeting time to be confirmed in your final documentation.

Bilbao, an industrial port city in northern Spain, is surrounded by green mountains. It is the de facto capital of Basque Country, with a skyscraper-filled downtown. It’s famed for the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which sparked revitalisation when it opened in 1997. The museum houses prominent modern and contemporary works, but it’s the curvy, titanium-clad building that receives the most attention.

Arrival Meet and Greet
Arrival into Bilbao where you will be met and transferred to the hotel. Time to freshen up from the flight followed by lunch at a local restaurant.

Santillana del Mar
This afternoon take a guided walking tour of Santillana del Mar, the pristinely preserved medieval village where you will be staying for several nights. The traditional architecture of the village begins with the 12th century Romanesque collegiate church, but spans well into the colonial period. The village boasts a large number of noble towers, mansions and palaces from various periods in history. This evening there will be a briefing and introductions by your tour leader Charles Schwalbe Garcia-Lago, followed by a welcome dinner.

lunch and dinner included

Day 2

Altamira Cave and Museum of Cantabria
This morning there will be an introductory presentation on the Paleolithic cave art and archaeology of Northern Spain, providing foundations for the museum and site visits that will follow throughout the tour. Visit the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria. The small region of Cantabria is one of the richest in the world for Paleolithic art and archaeology. The region has some 70 caves with art and numerous more with Paleolithic era remains. This compact yet comprehensive museum has thoughtful exhibits and displays covering the Paleolithic period including human remains, fauna, tools, and one of the world's best collections of Paleolithic portable art (small decorated pieces of bone, antler and stone). Learn about environmental, climate and technological changes over time during the Upper and Middle Paleolithic periods covering more than 150,000 years. Walk to lunch admiring the beautiful mountain backed bay of the Cantabria's capital city, Santander.

After lunch, there will be a stop at an overlook above Altamira cave to admire the landscape of coastal Northern Spain and its relevance to Altamira and the other caves during the last ice age.

This afternoon visit the Altamira Cave (replica) and museum. In 1879, Altamira became the very first cave in the world to be rediscovered and identified with Paleolithic rock art. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the cave's discoverer and an amateur archaeologist, presented a very well written and systematic interpretation of the art and archaeology of Altamira cave. He would be ostracized and ridiculed literally to death for crediting such magnificent art to "cave men". Posthumously he would gain recognition for the discovery of what is still one the finest Paleolithic art caves ever found in the world. The art in Altamira spans some 25,000 years. The grand ceiling of the cave is one of the true masterpieces of Paleolithic art. Travel in time from enigmatic symbols, some of the very first art created in the cave at over 35,600 years old, to schematic, yet lively, horses from over 22,000 years ago; then on to its famous herd of naturalistic, three dimensional polychrome bison from 14,500 years ago, and beyond. Missed by most casual visitors, we will try to decifer some rare anthropomorphic figures that appear to be part human and part animal. Evidence suggests that modern humans, Homo sapiens, inhabited the cave during several cultural periods of the Upper Paleolithic with the art in the cave spanning beyond known occupations. Your tour leader Charles has had the privilege of entering the real Altamira and will provide pertinent details relative to the actual cave versus the replica.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 3

Cave Exploration in the Basque Country
This morning take a scenic drive down the coast of Cantabria and the interior of the Basque Country with beautiful landscapes of Northern Spain. Take a short walk through a picturesque rural valley before arriving at the cave of Ekain (replica). Ekain has one of the finest collections of painted horses in the Paleolithic art world. See a natural rock formation in the cave which was modified by the human hand, and that may have provoked the entire sanctuary being dedicated primarily to the horse. While the horses will stand out, you will also see painted bison, bears and a fish, which are quite rare. The cave is considered to have been decorated over time but primarily some 15,000 years ago. The cave was used by modern humans around the same period, but does have some indications of having been used prior.

In the afternoon take a short hike (with a longer option for anyone willing) to visit Covalanas cave which is considered a synchronic cave, meaning it was decorated during only one period which was likely more than 22,000 years ago. The cave is known as the cave of the red hinds as these are the animal most often depicted in its paintings. The cave is also decorated with other painted figures including a stag, a horse, symbols, a hybrid figure and a figure interpreted as a either an aurochs or a reindeer. This cave is unique in that it was never inhabited.

Prior to or after visiting Covalanas, visit the nearby cave of El Miron, an active archaeological site with evidence of habitation by modern humans during the Paleolithic. El Miron is the site of an interesting and rare Paleolithic burial, one of a kind on for this period on the Iberian Peninsula.

Breakfast at your hotel.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 4

Cave Exploration
This morning visit the cave of Hornos de la Peña. A smaller and physically demanding cave, it is worth the effort for those who are capable. The cave is decorated primarily with engravings and was decorated over a long period of time, up to 20,000 years or more. With at least two distinct styles of art in the cave, this is a chance to come face to face with engravings and appreciate the delicateness of these figures and the techniques used to make them. The cave holds a wonderful surprise at the deepest part in a very private space of the cave where only a few people can physically fit. The cave was used during several cultures of the Upper Paleolithic by modern humans but also by Neanderthals back to 80,000 years or more.

This afternoon you will visit a cave that is a stark contrast to that seen this morning. The principle panel of art is art located in a prominent location in a very large room of the cave, potentially visible by several hundred people at the same time. This panel was decorated in the same style as a group of other caves, likely more than 22,000 years ago. The archaeology of this cave also tells a very interesting story about its potential use as a gathering place during the Paleolithic. It is one of the richest sites in the world for portable art. This cave was used by modern humans during every cultural period of the Upper Paleolithic, but also had intense Neanderthal occupations during the Middle Paleolithic dating back more than 80,000 years.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 5

The Asturias Region and Cave Exploration
Today move from the region of Cantabria to the neighbouring region of Asturias, which is also rich in Paleolithic art sites. Drive through the pastoral coastal hills of Cantabria and then along the rugged coasts of Cantabria and Asturias. Weather permitting you should have a view of the spectacular Picos de Europa mountain range. Visit to El Pindal Cave, located right on the sea. The cave entrance is just a few meters above the water and the surrounding area is quite picturesque. The interior of the cave holds a wide array of painted symbols, several bison, horses, a deer and a mammoth figure. The art is primarily from the last culture of the Upper Paleolithic although some of the art is attributed to older periods. The cave has no evidence of ever being inhabited during the Paleolithic. Afterwards you will see a small replica of Covaciella cave. The cave had remained sealed for years and its paintings were discovered by chance when roadwork opened a hole into the ceiling of the cave. The paintings seem to have been painted yesterday but correspond to some 14,000 years ago. It is an active archaeological site with some evidence of use during the Paleolithic, likely by modern humans.

This afternoon visit Tito Bustillo Cave and Museum. Tito Bustillo is one of the grand sanctuaries of the Paleolithic, having been decorated for more than 20,000 years. It is a large cave where we will have to walk a total of approximately 1.5 kilometres to see its principal panel of art. The cave's horses painted in violet are quite unique, but its reindeer will also leave you breathless. The museum of the cave has wonderful reproductions of areas that are not open to the public for conservation reasons but that are quite important to understanding the overall magnitude of this site. These areas are generally difficult to access and involve confined spaces. They contain some of the cave´s most enigmatic painted and engraved art including anthropomorphic figures, a whale and a chamber of unique symbols. Archaeological evidence to date at Tito Bustillo suggests the cave was inhabited only during the last period of the Upper Paleolithic by modern humans, although its art spans a much longer period.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 6

Pena de Candamo Cave and Teverga Museum
Today drive through rural pastoral and mountain areas of the interior of Asturias to access several interesting sites. Visit Pena de Candamo Cave. Peña de Candamo is also one of the great Paleolithic sanctuaries spanning a very broad temporal space, some 25,000 years. Visit a small museum with reproductions of the principal panels of art of the cave, in order to be able to clearly discern a space that was decorated and redecorated for thousands of years during most of the different cultural phases of the Upper Paleolithic. The cave suffered irreparable damage to its art due to lack of adequate control of visitors to the cave during the 20th century and is quite difficult to observe without visiting the replicas at the museum. The cave was inhabited during the later cultural phases of the Upper Paleolithic by modern humans.

This afternoon visit the Prehistory Park of Teverga. This interesting museum has reproductions and displays of many Paleolithic art sites in both Spain and some in France. Of particular importance is the reproduction of the principal panel of art from Llonin cave, a cave not open to the public for conservation reasons. The Prehistory Park also has live specimens of ice age animals depicted in the cave art, including European bison and cold climate Przewalski horses. Both of these species were saved from extinction through zoo populations but are now thriving again in the wild in certain areas of the world. Recently incorporated to the park are "modern aurochs", the predecessor species to modern day cattle that did go extinct but was "back bread" using genetically similar species.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 7

El Castillo Cave Complex
This morning drive back to the Cantabria region for a visit of the El Castillo mountain Paleolithic cave complex. The mountain of El Castillo has the highest concentration in the world of Paleolithic art and archaeological evidence in a very small geographic area. The mountain boasts five decorated caves, four of them UNESCO World Heritage sites for their Paleolithic art: El Castillo, La Pasiega, Las Chimeneas and Las Monedas caves. The archaeology on the mountain speaks of intense use by modern humans as well as Neanderthals during the Upper and Middle Paleolithic, but also potentially during the Lower Paleolithic back to 150,000 years or more. Visit the El Castillo Cave. This cave is one of the most important sites in the world for both Paleolithic art and archaeology. The art spans some 30,000 years with approximately 3,000 engraved, painted and sculpted hands, animals, symbols and anthropomorphic figures. The cave is literally decorated from beginning to end and contains some of the oldest verified artistic representations in the world, with hands and various other symbols over 30,000 years old. One painted disc in the cave has been dated at over 40,800 years old, Europe's oldest known art. The site was occupied during every cultural phase of the Upper Paleolithic by modern humans but also prior by Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic. The archaeological record in this cave suggests use by both modern day humans and Neanderthals within a short window of time, archaeologically speaking.

Continue your visit of the complex with a visit of Las Monedas Cave. In contrast, this cave was decorated at the very end of the Upper Paleolithic during the last cultural phase. The painted figures in the cave are principally horses and reindeer but also a bison, a goat and some other figurative art as well as symbols. The art is from about 12,000 years ago and the cave was only decorated during this period. The cave shows no evidence of inhabitation, although the site is presently being studied again by a new team of archaeologists.

After lunch there will be an opportunity for a hands on activity to better understand Paleolithic art and archaeology. This may include a hunting/art workshop and/or painting of each participant´s hand by a local Paleolithic art expert artist using the same techniques and materials that were used during the Upper Paleolithic.

breakfast, lunch and dinner included

Day 8

After breakfast transfer to Bilbao airport for your departure flight.

Suggested group flights
The suggested group inbound flight for this tour is:

British Airways BA467, scheduled to depart Bilbao at 12:20 on the 10th September, arriving into London Heathrow at 13:15

A departure transfer will be provided to connect with this flight.

For those not taking the suggested group flight, please speak to one of our team should you need help organising a departure transfer.

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For a more detailed itinerary with great ideas on what to do and where to stay, please get in touch with our experts.

Tour expert

Charles Schwalbe

Charles Schwalbe was born in Cantabria, in the heart of the Paleolithic art cave area of Northern Spain. He is a native speaker of both Spanish and English and has lived in Libya, Spain and the United States. He studied at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the United States’ finest research universities, and holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Business Administration from this institution. Charles has an interdisciplinary international professional background, coupled with broad historical and cultural experience gleaned from extensive world travel.

Charles has been leading tours of the Paleolithic art caves of Northern Spain for nearly a decade and has accumulated many hundreds of hours exploring them. This includes all of the caves open to the public, as well as caves not open to the general public on a regular basis, such as Altamira, La Pasiega, Las Chimeneas and Coimbre caves. He is also familiar with the vast majority of Paleolithic art sites open to the public in France and Portugal. In addition, he has firsthand experience in important parts of the caves that are generally inaccessible, both in Spain and in France.

Charles has the privilege of living in one of the richest areas in the world for Paleolithic cave art, with ongoing active archaeological research. As such, he regularly attends lectures and presentations by many of the foremost researchers in the field. Coupled with his thirst for knowledge of all things Paleolithic, he continues to gain a broader and deeper understanding of this fascinating period of prehistory. He has given web based presentations (webinars) on Altamira and La Pasiega caves, both closed to the general public but which he has been privileged to see in recent years.

Enquire about this Expert Led tour:

Group Size:

Min 2 / Max 6

Tour Expert:

Charles Schwalbe

Departure Date (S):

  • 3rd September 2018

  • Moderate Activity - The tour may occasionally involve slightly longer walks, but nothing over 4 hours. The tour will involve visits to a variety of sites throughout the duration of the itinerary and be at a moderate pace.

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