As someone who loves animals, nature and conservation, the morning’s itinerary was perfect. That day, we were heading to Cabarceno Nature Park.
Located just 15km out of Santander, Cabarceno is a popular day trip for tourists and locals alike. Over the course of the day, the reason for this popularity became increasingly clear.
Opened in 1989, Cabarceno does not consider itself a zoo. Spread over 750 hectares of beautiful karst landscape, parts of which were previously used as a mine, the park is home to animal species from five different continents. The welfare of the animals is the top priority, and all of these are allowed to roam freely in their massive enclosures.
Upon arriving at Cabarceno, we were quickly transferred to a Jeep. We had a lot of ground to cover after all; there are over 20km of road within the park, but there are plenty of walking and cycling routes too.
Our first stop for the day was at the elephant enclosure. ‘Enclosure’ sounds limiting in some way, yet the scale of Cabarceno is simply massive – and the park’s size was what surprised me most.
The elephants clearly knew that we were coming, as there was a row of them – of all ages – waiting for us as the Jeep approached. Getting out of the car, I marvelled at the size of the adult African elephants, as well as the multi-coloured hues of the landscape beyond them.
|A baby elephant grabs a snack – loved its adorable mini-tusks!|
The real reason for the elephants’ enthusiasm became clear when our guide for the day unloaded a box of apples from the back of the Jeep. Rolling these down the drive towards them, we provided the elephants with their mid-morning snack.
While at the enclosure, we saw how the elephants are trained to get used to human contact, so that the keepers can treat the animals if they become ill. All of this hard work has paid off, as Cabarceno has the biggest elephant herd in captivity outside of the African continent.
Bidding goodbye to the elephants, we headed to an enclosure of brown bears for our next stop. These brown bears are locals of the Cantabria region; however, due to numerous factors, their numbers in the wild have dwindled and they are now an endangered species.
We watched these powerful animals eat their meal, and even spotted a bear cub or two between the rocks towering over the first part of the enclosure.
Soon we were on the move again, as there was more feeding to do that day – and the giraffes were next in line. Spotting us from afar, we watched as three impossibly tall giraffes slowly made their way to us from the opposite side of the field in which they live. While they may move slowly, these animals carry themselves with such physical grace; they made me feel ungainly in comparison!
Armed with a bag of carrots, feeding the surprisingly gentle giraffes was the highlight of my day.
|Emma feeds two of the giraffes.|
|And then it was my turn!|
We made several other stops that day, with each being as interesting as the last. A rhino, a family of gorillas and a small herd of Grevy’s zebras (along with a ridiculously cute foal) all received visits from us, and I know that I couldn’t stop taking photos of all of them.
|The lovely Isabella feeds the park’s resident rhino.|
|A mum and her baby at the gorilla enclosure.|
|A young Grevy’s zebra foal.|
The next animal encounter was the most frightening – for me, at least. I’ve spoken previously about my, erm, issues with birds, so I was a little wary when I saw that we were about to visit the birds of prey area of the park.
Standing on little wooden perches, a variety of hawks and eagles were before us. Little did I know, this stop was about to become a lot more interactive.
We were handed gloves and our group was split down the middle, positioned on either side of a large field.
The instructions were seemingly simple: With my back to the other side of the field, a bird would be called to fly towards me. My job was to hold my arm out to the side, turn my head, and maintain eye contact with the bird so that it would land on the extended glove. Simple, maybe, but all of this was rather problematic for a person terrified of physical contact with birds.
I didn’t have time to think this through, though, as a piece of meat was placed on my glove and a whistle was blown. A bird was flying towards me.
The eagle landed on my arm, with a weight heavier than I expected, and I slowly turned, maintaining eye contact, until I was facing the other side of the field. Before I knew it, the bird was off flying once more.
We did this several more times, and I became less and less scared with every interaction. All of the eagles we saw that day were spectacular – a combination of powerful wings, piercing gazes, glossy feathers and menacing talons. I’ll never forget the experience.
|Alison looking far more relaxed than me!|
Adrenaline still coursing through me, it was time for something a little more relaxing. Climbing back into the Jeep, we drove towards the highest point in the park.
From this vantage point, the entirety of Cabarceno lay before us. Not only could we get a glimpse of just how big this park actually is, but we also got to see the stunning physical features of the region. Remnants of the mine are scattered across Cabarceno, and the accompanying sharp contrast between the bright green of the vegetation and the redness of the mountains beyond creates a picture-perfect landscape.
With this view acting as a farewell to Cabarceno, including the beautiful animals and the incredible people that uphold their welfare, it was time to leave. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day at Cabarceno Nature Park – and it is an attraction that I couldn’t recommend enough.
To find out more about Cabarceno Nature Park and the inspiring work being done here, check out the website.
In high season (April to September), all-day admission to the park costs 25 euros (15 euros for children). There are guided tours on offer too; a keeper tour costs 100 euros per person, while a full-day tour costs 200 euros (including lunch). There are discounts for group bookings.