People-to-People Travel and Volunteer Programs in Cuba
For over half a century, Cuba has been all but impossible to visit as a tourist from the United States. Recently though, travel regulations have become less restrictive, allowing for students, groups, solo travelers, and others to visit this amazing country and learn about its history and culture. Through people-to-people tours, educational programs, and other guided trips, there are many different ways you can visit, volunteer, and learn about life in this Caribbean country.
A Bit of History
Before we get into how to travel to Cuba, let’s look at why travel to this island nation has been so difficult in the first place. Up through the 1950s, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for travelers from the United States, Canada, and beyond. In fact, the country’s economy relied heavily on tourism and trade with the United States until the mid-1950s, when the disputed presidential election - a military coup led by Fulgencio Batista - resulted in a revolution led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara. As the country become more unstable, the United States imposed an arms embargo, and in 1959, Castro and his supporters gained control, ousting the president from office, and turning Cuba into a socialist nation.
In response to the ongoing arms embargo set in place by President Eisenhower, and with diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba deteriorating quickly, Castro began procuring weapons from the Soviet Union. With tensions rising from the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, Cuba’s relationship and proximity to the US became a major issue. As Cuba’s trade with the USSR increased, the United States began imposing more embargoes - and Cuba responded by nationalizing privately-held, US-owned companies that were operating in the country. In 1961, the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba while also training Cuban refugees to attempt an overthrow of the Cuban government (the failed Bay of Pigs invasion). These activities, tied with the ongoing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the United States deployed ballistic missiles to Italy and Turkey, while the Soviet Union deployed their own to Cuba - 90 miles away from Florida - which is the closest the Cold War ever came to nuclear war. In 1963, President Kennedy imposed travel restrictions that all but made it impossible for Americans to visit the island nation. These restrictions were in place for more than half of a century.
Between the travel blockade enforcing severe restrictions on tourism, an increasingly unstable country, and fears faced by many travelers who otherwise would have visited Cuba for leisure, tourism and trade of any kind to the country came to a near standstill. With that, Cuba’s economy and infrastructure, and particularly its rural communities’ development and support, suffered greatly as well.
Cuba’s economy and development suffered much more after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been the country’s main international sponsor. Beginning in 1999, the United States and Cuba went through periods of trade and travel thaws and restrictions, until 2009 when some economic sanctions were lifted. In 2015, travel restrictions for Americans were changed significantly, and in 2016, JetBlue and American Airlines became the first commercial US airlines to land in Cuba since 1962. And with increased humanitarian efforts, and trade - particularly imports of telecommunications and computer technology - as well as increased tourism, Cuba is becoming an excellent tourist destination, particularly for travelers interested in gaining an immersive experience to learn about Cuban history, culture, and day-to-day life.
Traveling to Cuba Now
Right now, the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issues general licenses for 12 categories of travel, including:
Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Professional research and professional meetings
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
Certain authorized export transactions
Right now, there are several different ways you can travel to Cuba: airlines such as American, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Delta, and others have begun bringing travelers from the US to Havana, and this year, cruise lines such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean will begin departing from Miami to Cuba. You can also sail to Havana or Varadero, and pay an entry fee from there. And finally, you can travel with a trusted organization that will help arrange a people-to-people tour to allow you to travel individually or with a group.
A people-to-people tour is one of the most popular (and legal) ways you can visit Cuba. Tourism for leisure technically isn’t allowed in the country yet, so instead, your trip must include an educational component to meet Cuban people and engage in cultural exchange. There are lots of ways to do this: for example, you can attend a lecture by a local community leader, visit a local pottery maker, speak with students about their education and daily life, take a cooking class with a local chef, go on a walking tour of a city, and much more.
Volunteering and Studying in Cuba
There are so many different reasons to visit Cuba right now: from amazing food and festivities, to wonderful people, to a vibrant culture, there’s tons of places to see and things to do in this country. As the most populous Caribbean nation with 11 million people, Cuba also has an incredibly high literacy rate - 99.8% - with school being mandatory for each child up to age 15. This country also has the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world, and is a popular destination for medical tourism. However, despite the country’s progress and support for its citizens, those in rural areas in particular are plagued by poverty, food insecurity, and lack of material resources.
The three organizations highlighted below offer impactful, educational trips to Cuba for high school and college students, solo travelers, gap year travelers, career break travelers, and groups. Through these programs, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with local students and educators, medical professionals, business owners, religious leaders, and many others to give you a perspective of Cuban lifestyles, culture, and history. You’ll also be able to take part in community service programs to support children and seniors, entrepreneurs, farmers, and other people who benefit from volunteer assistance to develop stronger communities.
Read on to learn how you can travel and volunteer in Cuba!
Since 1989, Global Works has combined community service, cultural exchange, language immersion, and adventure for an amazing and immersive travel experience both for students and for groups. More than 10,000 travelers have signed up with Global Works’ summer service adventures for high school students and custom group trips for educators, schools, and private groups. Trips range from 8 to 21 days, and can include community development, conservation, language immersion, and public health.
One way you can travel to Cuba is through Global Works’ Authentic Cuba trip, complete with adventure tours, cultural activities such as salsa dancing lessons and cooking classes, and community service projects. This is an incredible opportunity if you’re a high school student looking for a unique summer break: for 12 days, you’ll explore a gorgeous Caribbean island nation that only recently has become a tourism hotspot for travelers from the United States. As a truly immersive service-learning program, this people-to-people tour will take you into cities and towns to meet with locals and learn about their history, culture, day-to-day life, and so much more.
To start, you’ll fly from Miami to Havana for an orientation, and over the next three days, you will explore the city, visit a farmer’s market, take a cooking class, and learn about Cuba’s history. After that, you will travel to the western side of the island to Pinar del Rio, where you’ll go zip lining, hiking through mountains, and even be able to practice your Spanish while volunteering at a community center and farming co-op. During the second week of your tour, you’ll visit the Bay of Pigs in the Southern Province and learn about the complicated history between Cuba and the United States, and how US foreign policy still affects Cuban citizens today. From there, you’ll embark on a tour of Trinidad and the countryside beyond it, and then finish your trip by visiting the small colonial town of Remedios as well as the city of Santa Clara.
During your trip, you’ll stay in casas particulares - the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast. These homes are owned and operated by local citizens, and you’ll share a room with your fellow students. The average group size for this trip is 14 students and 2 staff members, and is open to high school travelers in grades 9 through 12. Tuition for Global Works’ Authentic Cuba program is $4,995 for the full 12 days.
Learn more about traveling to Cuba and beyond with Global Works at: www.globalworkstravel.com
Since 1984, Global Volunteers has offered internships, volunteer trips, gap years, TEFL, and teach abroad placements in 34 countries around the world. More than 33,000 volunteers have traveled with Global Volunteers to date, and as one of the longest-running volunteer vacation providers in the world, this organization was granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations in 1999, and formalized a relationship with UNICEF in 2008. And depending on where you travel with Global Volunteers, placements start from $1,045 for your first week abroad, and may be tax-deductible for volunteers from the United States.
Through Global Volunteers, you can visit Cuba and make a positive impact is through a people-to-people exchange. There are three different communities you can choose to visit during your trip: Havana, Ciego de Ávila, and Sancti Spíritus, and each has its own service activities that you’ll be able to take part in. Since 2007, Global Volunteers has worked with partners in Cuba to provide service programs to communities in need, with a focus on advancing English competency, improving infrastructure, advancing economic vitality, contributing to international cultural exchange and understanding, and supporting civil society.
A few of the service projects you can be a part of with Global Volunteers’ Cuba program include:
English conversation: Helping adults and teens practice their language skills
Community gardening: Helping local residents supply produce for markets, senior centers, and preschools
Women’s cooperative sewing and knitting circle: Working with local women to produce baby clothes, aprons, crafts, and more
Pottery making: Working with a local business to create and supply restaurants with jars and planters
Repair and maintenance: Assisting with repairing and upkeep for local buildings that have fallen into disrepair due to lack of resources
Engaging seniors: Working with seniors throughout Havana to provide basic services and companionship
Meal assistance: Providing lunchtime and take-out meals for older community members
During your stay, you’ll be accommodated in a tourist-class hotel or in casas particulares with single or shared rooms. While many volunteer abroad programs worldwide build in free time for their participants to explore their communities or take side trips, tourism for Americans within Cuba is still restricted - so to give you an immersive experience in Cuba, Global Volunteers provides several different people-to-people cultural exchange opportunities to help further cross-cultural understanding. Just a few of the many different activities you’ll have a chance to take part in include:
Walking tour of Old Havana
Guided tour of the Hemingway Museum
Lecture and discussion about the history of Cuba and United States relations from the Cuban perspective
Guided tour of the Museum of the Revolution
Lunch and discussion at the Cuban Council of Churches
Throughout your stay in Cuba, you’ll have lots of opportunities to meet and speak with students, teachers, artists, business professionals, and religious leaders to learn about Cuban history, culture, and traditions. As a volunteer, you’re invited to stay for one to two weeks, with a starting fee of $2,795.
To learn more about volunteering in Cuba and around the world with Global Volunteers, please visit: https://globalvolunteers.org
International Service Learning (ISL) is another excellent organization to check out if you want to visit and volunteer in Cuba. For more than 20 years, ISL has provided medical programs, enrichment opportunities, and adventure tours with thousands of student travelers worldwide. Right now, ISL works in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, and places more than 1,750 volunteers abroad every year. ISL prides itself on their partnerships within their host communities, placing students on medical and healthcare programs that approve (and even request) them, with supervision from licensed, local health care providers.
If you’re interested in public health and would like to learn about Cuba’s robust healthcare system, check out ISL’s Cuba tour, where you’ll have the chance to visit neighborhood clinics, which provide routine care; poli-clinics, which provide cardiology and other specialized services; ancillary care facilities, which provide geriatric care; and hospitals. You’ll also be able to attend lectures and presentations by local health experts, who will teach you about the history and cultural aspects of the country’s healthcare system as well as indigenous medicines and healthcare practices.
During your trip, you’ll also have the opportunity to go zip lining, swimming, touring Old Havana, and even visiting tropical forests. If you’d like to create a custom group package for your trip to Cuba, ISL offers the chance for you to travel with friends, a student organization, as part of a university course, or even with a private health practice, as long as you group has eight or more people in it.
To learn more about traveling to Cuba and beyond with ISL, please visit: www.islonline.org
Ready to Travel?
If you’re ready to embark on an adventure like no other, Cuba is a great place to start! Click here to create your account on Volunteer Forever and begin fundraising for your trip today.
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