The Archaeological Site of Atapuerca is the finding place of fossils and stone tools of the earliest known hominids in Europe, dating to between 780,000 and 1 million years ago.
Several remains of the Homo heidelbergensis were found, the predecessor to the Neanderthal.
The site lies in the Sierra de Atapuerca, an ancient karstic region of Spain containing several caves. They were inhabited also during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Its people left paintings and engravings in the cave walls.
The sites in this area were found during the construction of a railway. Scientific exploration started in 1964.
Map of AtapuercaLoad map
Visit August 2009
Atapuerca is quite a hard site to grasp, as most early hominid WHS are. The remains were found in caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca, an ancient karst landscape. There's not much to see of that nowadays: the surroundings can be described as 'hilly' at the most. It is mainly flat and dry Spanish land. Lots of Santiago de Compostela-pilgrims on the road by the way!
Unfortunately I didn't have much time to spend in the area, so I opted for a guided tour through the archeological park. It's only a small area, and the tour is filled with (long!) explanations. The ranger shows how early man made tools from stone, and how to make fire.
If you've got a day to spare, there are several guided tours on offer from both the towns of Atapuerca and Ibeas de Juarros. They include 2-hour trips to the caves in Yacimiento. I would try to pre-book here. Despite the 'difficult' theme, it's quite a popular site. There's also a museum and a visitor center (and a café / restaurant or two).
I visited this WHS in May 2016. Any foreignor who visits this WHS won't visit by chance. You have to make an effort to understand which site is a general museum on archaeology (CAREX), which site is a visitor centre on Atapuerca but contains none of the remains which give this site its OUV (CAYAC - from where all tours to the yacimientos depart), whether or not you want to physically visit the core zone of this WHS to experience a real archaeological excavation site and an interesting lecture in Spanish together with some information boards in English, or whether to visit the Museo de la Evolución Humana in Burgos to see the most important finds from the yacimientos of Atapuerca. I decided to do all of the above since I actually slept in Atapuerca while doing the Camino Frances and I spent 3 nights in Burgos, so I had enough time. Before arriving by walk in Atapuerca, I noticed that there was a 3km walking trail just before entering the town, opposite the unofficial UNESCO WHS pointing to the CAREX museum. I didn't mind a 3km detour especially since I'm also fond of birdwatching so I walked all the way to the Mirador above the Yacimientos de Atapuerca. This is not advertised anywhere, probably to earn more money through the organised tours as well as reducing the amount of people walking along the narrow one lane bumpy road leading to the yacimientos, which is also used by the coaches transporting people from the CAYAC visitor centre to the Yacimientos. This way you could actually visit the core zone and see the excavation sites (and scaffolding!) of Atapuerca from a distance. Recently however, not only the scaffolding is covered by a temporary roof but the whole railway cutting, meaning that most probably you'll always see the excavation sites in the shade. Unless you bring along a pair of binoculars, in my opinion from here you won't be able to appreciate the minor details and geology which are explained well on the information boards placed below but at least it's free, it's quicker and you'll skip the tour in Spanish. You can also visit by car and park next to the security guard but I wouldn't suggest it because of the road conditions. I wasn't at all satisfied with this quick visit so I called CAYAC by phone and booked myself a tour to the Yacimientos departing from the Museo de la Evolucion Humana in Burgos. This included transport, the tour to the Yacimientos and entrance to the CAREX museum in Atapuerca for 10 euros. You can also opt to visit the museum in Burgos + the tour to the Yacimientos only. Everything is closed on Mondays so keep it in mind. I also paid 4 euros to visit the excellent museum in Burgos and since I was the first visitor at 10am, I could easily take photos (usually there are people on guard to avoid this for commercial reasons) of the remains from Atapuerca which are truly of OUV for their archaeological importance. The most important remains are the bones of the Homo heidelbergensis (picture) which were found in the Bones pit in Atapuerca. There is one whole floor dedicated to Atapuerca and the top floor has an interesting permanent exhibition with very realistic 3D figures which show how our ancestors looked like as well as replicas of the most important hominid finds discovered worldwide. Moreover there was a very interesting exhibition on the most important prehistoric art found worldwide (most are UNESCO WHS). At around 11:30 a bus transported us to the CAYAC where several others joined our group (the minimum number per visit is set to 20 people; the majority of the visitors were Spaniards). The young qualified guides are university students/laureates who studied archaeology in depth and some have also participated in the archaeological excavations in Atapuerca. Even though my Spanish is limited I could follow the gist what was being said and why Atapuerca's geology is so important. It's a real pity that tours in English aren't organised but at least there are information boards in English next to the 3 mains sites of the yacimientos. The only odd thing about the tour is that after the visit in the yacimientos, you are left in Ibeas de Juarros where there's nothing to do except have lunch from one of the two restaurants in town. Luckily I made friends with other visitors and we had lunch together but it would make much more sense to have the possibility to go back to Burgos or straight to the CAREX museum. After lunch, our next stop was the CAREX museum which is quite interesting (although mostly geared to entertain children and school outings) to have a general overview but it has nothing to do with the WHS or its OUV. After being transported back to the museum in Burgos, I spent a couple of hours wandering around the museum as the ticket is valid for the whole day. All in all, I'm glad I visited every single site/museum to have a holistic picture of Atapuerca as a WHS but if you're pressed for time, go for the Yacimientos + the museum in Burgos.
As the previous reviews indicate, visiting Atapuerca can be an unsatisfactory experience both because of the nature of the site itself and also because of all the usual difficulties about visiting times and guided tours which are common to many Spanish WHS, but are particularly awkward here. I will recount our experience and indicate that I don’t think we made the best choices!
First it is important to recognise that there are 2 “Visitor Centres” at Atapuerca
a. CAREX – Centro de Arqueologia Experimental. Also called “Parque Arqueologico y reception de visitiantes Atapuerca”. This is situated north of the excavation site near to the village of Atapuerca (42.379218 -3.501280)
b. CAYAC – Centro Accessos a los Yaciementos. This is situated just east of the village of Ibeas de Juarros on N120 (42.334178 -3.524889).
Then there are the excavations themselves at the famous railway cutting or “Trinchera” where the caves of Elefante, Grand Dolina and Galeria are still being excavated. These are situated a couple of kilometres north of CAYAC along a gravel road at 42.350692 -3.519595. After you turn off the N120 at the Visitor Centre there is an almost immediate left turn to it – however if you don’t make that turn but continue, you will reach the excavations.
And then finally there is the Museo de la Evolucion Humana in Burgos (Not of course part of the inscribed site) at 42.339120 -3.697158. This has 1 complete floor devoted to the Atapuerca discoveries where one can obtain an excellent explanation of the entire site across the millennia and see some of the actual discoveries. It is from this location that a number of organised tours leave at published times by bus – varying according to the season and the day of the week – on which you can see various combinations of the above. If you are staying in Burgos without transport this seems the best way of taking in the site(s)
But what if you have your own transport or are adamantly against joining a group tour? Without understanding the above, we first reached CAREX having followed the road signs to “Atapuerca” and thinking initially that this was “it” This is a shiny new building which is free to enter and has rather mediocre displays about the inhabitants and ways of life of the people of Atapuerca . We enquired about tours to visit the excavations and bought tickets (Eur 6 pp) for one leaving at 12.15 – except, we were told, that it left from “another place”. This turned out to be CAYAC which we were told how to drive to (only around 11kms). We didn’t enquire further about other offerings at CAREX which consist of a visit to the park which is set up to demonstrate the way of life of Paleolithic people and to provide opportunities to knap flint, fire bows and arrows etc!
It might be worth mentioning that at the back of the hall was a further exhibition area titled “Sexo en Piedra” (situated just beyond where the kiddies could play at such paleolithic activities as using flint to scrape animal skins!). Apparently this is a travelling exhibition put together by Javier Angulo and Marcos Garcia who, in 2005, published a book with full name of “Sexo in Piedra, Sexualidad, Reproduccion y Erotismo en Epoca Paleolitica”! (see http://www.abebooks.com/book-search/author/javier-angulo-marcos-garcia/ ) It appeared that the exhibit had been stationed at CAREX for a couple of years but Reception didn’t know for how much longer!! Among individual exhibits were those titled “Sexo Oral”, “Zoofilia” and “La Estimulacion”. These displayed the cave drawings and paintings which are not normally brought to the attention of visitors!! I noted that a few of them came from the Coa Valley and others from Vezere. Although the exhibit is located at the Centre for Experimental Archaeology I saw no indication that any “experimental” work on the subject was taking place!
After that surprisingly “interesting” (!!) additional exhibit we moved on to CAYAC - another enormous spanking new building which didn’t seem to have enough to fill it. There were, however, some interesting exhibits in the form of models and reproductions and good notice boards in Spanish and English explaining the geology and archaeology of the area – but nothing original. At around 12.25 a bus turned up for our 12.15 tour. This already had passengers who, I presume, had joined at the Museum in Burgos. 2.4kms later we were all (40+?) deposited at the Excavations where there was a huge structure covering much of the railway cutting, surrounded by wire fencing and with a manned security cabin. We, however, were led round to the left and up a path to the top of the cutting along which we walked until a gate was unlocked and we all clambered down a series of steps built into scaffolding to the floor (we had been issued with hard hats for this). There we were treated to a c1 hour lecture in Spanish. Now I have no problems with the lecture being in Spanish – we were in Spain and there were too many visitors to try to handle multiple languages, but why does this have to be the “only” way of getting to the floor of the cutting? And it wasn’t even as if the lecture related specifically to what we were looking at – the guide had a series of aids such as plastic skulls and was clearly giving a general lecture on paleolithic man much of which could have been given anywhere – including those enormous Visitor Centres! Even many of the Spaniards in our group seemed to find the lecture not particularly interesting. As for us – well there were notice boards on English/Spanish which explained the area we were in (The entire group was only taken in front of Galeria and Grand Dolina with our view of Elefante being limited to a brief one from the upper path). The “caves” themselves (not really “caves” any longer since the millennia had filled them with strata of detritus from human occupation, rain washed sediments, rock falls etc and it was these strata which contained the material of interest) were partially hidden by scaffolding to enable the archaeologists to reach all the areas but their face was clearly marked by signs indicating the various historical levels together with vertical cords creating a grid to locate any find. I was reminded very much of Zhoukoudian and Tabun Cave at Mt Carmel. After the lecture we climbed back to the top and our bus returned us to the Visitor Centre – arriving at 2.01, just in time for it to have closed for the afternoon thus precluding any possibility of revisiting the exhibition or of using the “servisios”!!
Looking back, it was clearly a mistake to take the Excavation tour. Unless it is very important to you to visit the floor of the Trinchera (but IMO the view from the bottom looking up at the “caves” isn’t much different from that at the top looking down!! See photo from the top) or want a lecture in Spanish I would give it a miss – thus saving both the time, the money and the hassle of arranging to fit in with tour timings. Out of interest I asked the guide whether it was possible to visit the excavations solely from outside the fence and was told that they weren’t allowed to say yes but that “no one would stop us”. Clearly Fundacion Atapuerca wants to maximise its “tourist take”! In fact the upper path (which is still inside the inscribed area by the way) actually has descriptive boards placed outside the fences so it seems clear that such visits were envisaged – but you will see no sign at the turn to the Visitor Centre to indicate this and, when we bought our tickets at CAREX, this possibility was never offered, despite the fact that it was clear that our limited Spanish wasn’t up to the lecture. So John Booth below chose what, in my view, was the best option. The only slight issue is that he walked from the road – what about taking a car? Well there is a Car Park with a “P” sign in front of the Excavation security barrier. There were only 2 cars there when we arrived - both I suspect belonging to security staff. But there is no notice on the road past the visitor centre to indicate that it is not “public” and I would be very surprised if it were prevented. I also note that Google maps shows an alternative shorter drive from CAREX to CAYAC which uses the gravel road and goes quite close to the excavations.
So, our recommendation - take in each of the Visitor Centres together with the excavations from outside the fence and then make sure you visit the Museo de la Evolucion Humana in Burgos – whether it is better to see this before or after the Excavations I am not sure. Probably the latter – unless you are a Jubilado in which case it is FREE anyway so no problem in taking it in twice!
J M de Domingo
Very disappointing, as the teams were working and we had to climb up and around the edge of the site so we saw almost nothing. The guide stopped 3 or 4 times and spoke for 15 to 20 minutes (we could understand as we speak Spanish but there was no consideration for non-Spanish speakers) Leaflets in other languages would be useful, but it's pointless when work is going on, wait till a period when you can get to see things
My visit to Atapuerca was only to the Yacimentos (excavations) and not to the archaeological park. The visit involved taking a bus to the village of Ibeas de Juarro (on the Burgos to Logrono route), where there is a visitors centre and small museum about Atapuerca. From Ibeas it is a 3km hike to the entrance of the railway cutting where the excavations start, and from there, there is a track which follows the top of the cutting. These excavations are still ongoing and a fenced off for security, but I got a birds eye view of the Suiva del Elefanta, the Galeria and the Gran Dolina.
We could visit the archaeological park on a selfguided tour only without access to the actual excarvations. History is reconstructed by replicas of huts and fences demonstrating how our ancestors may have lived and hunted here until a few thounds years ago. I strongly recommend to arrange for a guided tour as it would give you a much better value add.
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