Explore the Cabárceno wildlife park
Just south of Santander, a disused open-cast iron mine has been turned into an extraordinary nature reserve where Cantabrian brown bears, elephants, tigers, gorillas, hippos, rhinos and bison – to name but a few – roam around giant enclosures in a landscape of eerie limestone pinnacles and lush meadows. Explore the park by foot, car or bicycle, before taking a cable car ride for a bird’s-eye view.
Enjoy a gentle cycle from Puente Viesgo
An old railway track is now a cycling path that leads from the spa town down the banks of the Pas River to the pretty village of Alceda, where there is also an adventure park. The route is mostly flat, only takes about an hour, and has picnic spots and playgrounds along the way, so it’s perfect for families. To add a little culture to your excursion, take a 5km (3-mile) round trip from Puente Viesgo to see the extraordinary cave paintings in the Monte Castillo and Las Monedas caves.
Scale the peaks of the Picos de Europa national park
The Picos de Europa in south-west Cantabria are perhaps the most majestic mountains in Spain. Following the dramatic drive up to Fuente Dé, where the sheer hillsides form a natural amphitheatre, hikers and sightseers board a cable car for a thrilling, almost-vertical ride up the mountainside, rising 753 metres (2,470 ft) in just four minutes. Now 1,823 metres (6,000 ft) up, you might just want to take in the view with an ice-cream, but trekking along one of the tracks that takes you deeper into the mountains is the more rewarding option.
Enjoy bucolic bliss in the Valles Pasiegos
The Pas, Pisueña and Miera valleys south of Santander make up the Valles Pasiegos, an area of lush green hills where farmers pick their crops with traditional cuévano baskets on their backs. Stay in a local village house to get an authentic taste of rural life, and try the delicious cakes and ice-cream made from the rich milk of the Pasiega cattle. For a bit more excitement, have a go at canyoning in the streams that gush down the hillsides.
Marvel at the Costa Quebrada geological park
The sculptural rock formations, cliffs, bays and dunes of the Costa Quebrada, west of Santander, bring geology to life. Whether you choose to explore and make your own discoveries, or go on a guided tour to find out about the vestiges of tropical reefs and the events that changed the marine ecosystem over the centuries, you’ll be enraptured.
Take to the water on the Ebro River
For an adrenaline rush, head to Spain’s second-longest river, the Ebro. From its source, near Reinosa in the south of Cantabria, it flows for more than 900km (560 miles) out to the Mediterranean, providing marine sports opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. Kayakers, whitewater rafters and even kitesurfers – on the calmer waters of the Ebro reservoir – are catered for.
Make a pilgrimage to a waterfall in the Collados del Asón nature reserve
From the village of Arredondo, you can follow the Asón River up to its source through a valley of beech and oak forests surrounded by limestone mountains – an excursion best undertaken in spring or early summer. The water emerges from the rocks, creating a spectacular waterfall that crashes down the sheer hillside into the gorge below. For a less energetic experience, drive up and see the waterfall from various observation points.
Surf in the Oyambre nature reserve
Two river networks emerge into the sea in the Oyambre nature reserve in the west of Cantabria, between the pretty coastal towns of Comillas and San Vicente de Barquera, creating a haven for hikers and birdwatchers – but it’s the glistening crescents of white sand, backed by dunes, that appeal to many families. The surfing at Merón and Oyambre beaches offers something for most levels of proficiency, including children keen to take their first lessons.
Explore the Campoo valley on horseback
Spending a day on horseback is a wonderful way to experience the varied landscapes of Cantabria. One option is to head to the Campoo valley in the south of the region. Here, you’ll find stables that can pair you up with a horse, whatever your age or ability, and take you trekking through the mountains. You’ll have an expert guide to tell you all about the plants, trees and wildlife that you see along the way – and dine on picnic lunches made from the best local produce.
Birdwatch at the Trasmiera ecopark
This ecopark in the marshlands on the Costa Trasmiera, east of Santander, gives visitors an insight into a beautiful landscape and the heritage of the people who have made it their home for centuries. For example, within the grounds of the Trasmiera ecopark, the 14th-century Santa Olaja tidal mill has been turned into a museum that explains how the power of the sea was harnessed to grind wheat. Back outside, you’ll see wading birds such as spoonbills, curlew sandpipers and avocets.
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