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, and even do volunteer work in Cuba. 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 became 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 its 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:
- Family visits
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- 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 or volunteer in 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. By volunteering in Cuba, 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!
Travel to Cuba with Global Volunteers
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. Through these Cuban people-to-people exchange programs, there are three different communities you can choose to visit during your trip: Havana, Ciego de Avila, and Sancti Spiritus, 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. Whether you want to focus on teaching English in Cuba or help with maintenance and repair, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities here.
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, Global Volunteers’ Cuba program ensures 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 on their Cuba volunteer trips 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 in Cuba, you’re invited to stay for one to two weeks, with a starting fee of $2,795.
To learn more about volunteer work in Cuba and around the world with Global Volunteers, please visit: https://globalvolunteers.org
Travel to Cuba with International Service Learning (ISL)
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 and Volunteer in Cuba?
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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Sarah Vandenberg · Director of Partnerships
Sarah has worked as a researcher and consultant in the volunteer travel world since 2004. With a BA from the George Washington University and background working with both public and private sector volunteer organizations, she enjoys exploring the world and collecting and sharing stories, trends, and advice with travelers who want to volunteer, intern, or teach abroad.