The wonderful thing about the Varadero Hop On – Hop Off Bus is you can easily visit all the highlights of the 20km (12.5 mile) long Hicacos Peninsula, from the top of the double decker, for a very reasonable price.
While Varadero is most well known for it’s kilometers of white pristine beaches, warm clear waters and tourists, there are some other kid friendly activities for when you need a break from the beach. Here are our top kid-friendly things to do in Varadero by the Hop On – Hop Off Bus:
- Tour the Peninsula from the top deck
- Marina Gaviota
- Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos – Cueva de Muslemanes, Cueva Ambrosia & El Patriarca
- Horse carriage ride through Josone Park
- Ice cream and mini golf at El Golfito
- Souvenirs at the Big Market
Varadero is a tourist area, and everything caters to tourists. You won’t find much authentically Cuban here. People come here to relax, spend time on the beach and get away from it all. Nothing wrong with that.
Just be sure to relax your expectations, and take things as they come. This is Cuba, after all. Buildings won’t be pristine, delays happen, and shortages of food and goods means things won’t always be available when you want them. This all adds to the charm and beauty of Cuba.
Hop On – Hop Off Bus
The red and blue Varadero Beach Tour Bus is an easy and inexpensive way to tour the Peninsula. Look for their frequent stop signs along the Highway near your resort, or on Primera Avenida ( First Avenue ) in downtown Varadero.
Hours: 9:30am to 9:00pm.
Cost: $5 CUC per person for the whole day. Kids under 6 are free (one per adult). Keep your ticket to show the driver when you get on your next stop.
Route: The Varadero Beach Tour Bus runs up and down the Peninsula from the Barcelo Marina Palace, past Varadero centre to Puntarena Hotel and back. Its 46 stops link all the hotels / resorts, shopping centers, and markets, as well as the golf course, delfinario, and downtown Varadero. The full circuit takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes, plus a 15 minute stop in Punta Rena.
Frequency: Every 20 – 30 minutes or so.
Tip: Start early so you can take advantage of the all day pass. Bring a light jacket, hat and sunscreen for the wind and sun. We suggest you return to your hotel early or have dinner out in Varadero town to avoid the dinner rush. The bus definitely got busier later in the day, especially around 4/5pm and it was hard to find a seat.
Kid-Friendly Things To Do In Varadero
Tour the Peninsula from the Top Deck
What better way to see the views of the entire Peninsula and enjoy the salty breeze, than taking a tour from the top of the double decker Hop On – Hop Off Bus. My daughter was keen to try it out. I have to admit I really wanted to do this as well, my partner not so much. Our bus had a canopy to shade us from the sun, which made all the difference. It would have been a long hot ride without one.
My daughter loves taking the bus. It’s this magical unicorn of transportation for her. Probably because it is such a rare occasion she actually gets to ride on one, due in part to to the fact we live in a small northern remote town in Canada. In Varadero, Cuba once she saw the Hop on – Hop off Bus, it became her daily mantra. Mom can we ride that bus? I want to sit on the top. You said we could ride the bus tomorrow, yesterday. It topped her list of non-beach things to do in Varadero, second only to the horse carriage ride
The Marina Gaviota lies at the eastern tip of the Hicacos Peninsula and is a modern addition to the area. Wander around the walkways taking in catamarans (who also offer day trips), waterside cafes, shops, restaurants and a small grocery store. We stopped for an excellent cappuccino and a snack at the well air conditioned La Isabelica Cafe. A cool respite from the heat.
Kids will love the opportunity to swim with dolphins and watch a dolphin show at the Dolphinario, located in a mangrove lagoon at km 12.5 of the Autopista Sur. Personally I struggle with the idea of animals in captivity for show, and couldn’t find a lot of information on how they are treated, so we decided to skip this one.
Hours: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm daily
Dolphin shows: 11:00 am and 3:30 pm
Swim with dolphins at: 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 2:30 pm and 4:00 pm
Cost: Entrance fee and show is $15 CUC. Swimming with the dolphins costs $93 CUC per adult, and $78 CUC for children 12 and under. Pictures and video cost $55 CUC.
There are usually two 30 minutes dolphin shows daily and you can get your picture taken with a dolphin after the show for an extra 5 CUC. Swimming with the dolphins lasts approximately 20 minutes. They also have a snack bar, gift shop and small playground for kids.
Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos
The Varahicacos Ecological Reserve is the last remaining section of wilderness on the Peninsula. It was designated a preserve in 1974, and today sits at only a 3km square (1.15 sq mile) area, due to development.
Explore the rugged nature trail, a bat cave, a giant cactus and a 2500 year old skeleton. Sounds like the start of an Indiana Jones movie, but you and your family can wander into a real life adventure of your own. It is the only bit of wild you will find in Varadero, unless you hit the nightclubs after dark.
Hiking Trail to Cueva de Muslmanes
Hours: 9am to 4:30pm daily.
Cost: $5 CUC per person
Hop off the bus at the Sendero de Muslmanes entrance. Pay your fee, and take the self guided trail to the small Cueva de Muslmanes, where you can glimpse ancient bones and the occasional bat. The Trail takes about one hour, but schedule at least 90 minutes to include time to visit the cave.
Along the way look out for cacti, termite hills, hummingbirds, and numerous lizards skittering across your path.
Tip: Bring water, your camera and good footwear. The ground is rough and the track is narrow, so will be unsuitable for strollers, or people who are unsteady on their feet.
Cost: $2 CUC per person
El Patriarca is a giant cactus, estimated to be 500+ years old. There is a bus stop by the La Ocean Varadero El Patriarca Hotel, where you can find the trail entrance.
Hours: 9:00am to 4:30pm daily
Cost: $5 CUC per person
Cueva de Ambrosia is the larger of the two caves and is located on the resort side. Listen for the bus drivers announcement of Cueva Ambrosia. At the entrance there is an enthusiastic park ranger who will take your fee and give you a large flashlight. Ask about Proyecto CUBABAT, a conservation effort to protect the bats of Cuba. The day we went, the ranger was happy to give us a sticker and tell us all about their projects.
Inside you will see 5 species of bats flying overhead and nesting in crevices on the roof. Listen for their “squeaking.” View the 72 Pre-Columbian drawings, discovered here in 1961, that are representative of the Indigenous Taino culture. Explore the 5 interconnected caves, and hidden alcoves.
Seeing bats turned out to be the highlight of Varadero for our six year old, above the horse carriage ride, the hop on – hop off bus, and even the beach. It’s not often you can easily get this close to real life bats, and it was a cool experience for the whole family. If having bats fly overhead is not your thing, I suggest skipping this wonder.
Horse Carriage Ride through Josone Park
Cost: $10 CUC per person / per hour.
Our daughters number one request was to take a Horse Carriage Ride. In downtown Varadero you don’t have to look far as they run up and down the main avenue, calling out to you all day long.
We asked for a tour of Josone Park and then a trip to the big market at the end of Varadero, anticipating no more than an hour. Fairly early on, we realized the ride was becoming a tourist special, which ended up being 2+ hours. We decided to go with the flow and accept this as part of our Varadero experience. However if you want to avoid a more expensive, extended trip, be clear up front.
Tip: These are state run rides with a set cost of $10 CUC per person, per hour no matter what they tell you to get you onto their cart. To avoid a lengthy unanticipated 2+ hour ride, be clear on where you want to go and how long you are willing to pay for up front.
We ended up in Josone Park twice, once to wander through by foot, and once during our horse carriage ride. Both are fun ways to visit this green oasis, who’s landscaped gardens date back to the 1940’s.
Josone’s expansive grounds feature a lake with rowboats and water-bikes for rent, resident geese and chickens, and a multitude of tree species. Apparently there is also a public swimming pool in the south end of the park.
Relax at one of the restaurants or outdoor bars, and drink the “best” mojito in Cuba ( according to the bartender). The Horse Carriage driver stopped at one, so we could get off, grab a drink if we wanted and to take some pictures on the bridge. The second time we visited, we bought an ice cream for our daughter and wandered around looking for a shady spot to sit.
Ice cream and mini golf at El Golfito
Hours: 9am to 10pm
Cost: Mini Golf 0.50 CUC per player per round
Address: Avenida 1 corner of Calle 42
I want to preface this by saying this isn’t your manicured mini golf course from home, with large statues, windmills and 18+ holes. It’s a small concrete course which makes for fun moments when the golf balls bounce around in unexpected ways. That being said, El Golfito is a great place to stop and sit in the shade, with a delicious cappucino, while the kids are entertained with ice cream cones and mini golf.
Souvenirs at the “Big” Market aka Varadero Street Market
Walking along Avenida Primera ( First Avenue) in downtown Varadero you will hear the constant call of the Horse Carriage drivers yelling out “Big Market”, 3 km away, no matter where you are on the strip.
The “Big Market” also known as the Varadero Street Market is located on Avenida Primera between Calle 15 and 16. This souvenir market is a paradise for kids, and is full of handcrafted items made out of wood, recycled tin cans and leather, paintings, crocheted dresses and your usual kitchy magnets, keychains and t-shirts. Public toilets are available near the courtyard area. You will have to pay $1CUC.
I am generally not a big fan of bringing home souvenirs unless they hold special meaning or memories for me. However the absolute look of delight in my daughters eye when I gave her a small amount of money to spend as she chose, was worth it. A good opportunity to also slip in a life lesson on money and budgeting. Go team parent.
In the end the hard part was keeping her to her allotted amount, as she had wonderfully generous ideas of buying gifts for friends, family and of course something for herself. Confession, we also walked away with some paintings, a wooden dominoes set, and Cuba themed key chains.
Tip: Visit the market near the end of your Varadero town adventure, to avoid having to carry around souvenirs all day.
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Varadero: Kid Friendly Things to Do by Hop On – Hop Off Bus
Featured photo: istock / nanatov