Cuba has been off limits for over half a century. The U.S. trade embargo resulted in nothing from the States going in or out – including its citizens. Now, some organizations (humanitarian and educational) have programs offering volunteering in Cuba, and diplomatic relations, although still strained, are improving. Opportunities for people from the U.S. to volunteer in Cuba may be a bit more limited, but that doesn’t hinder the richness of volunteer work in Cuba for individuals from all over the world.
Cuba offers a glimpse into another time, it’s as if everything stopped several decades ago. The isolation resulted in a preserved culture where the streets are full of music, delicious food, and decaying yet colorful colonial architecture. Volunteering in Cuba is the best way to see inside the hidden culture, which is somehow Caribbean and Spanish and both evolving and at a standstill all at once.
Havana. The capital is the most popular location to volunteer in Cuba. Habana Vieja, the old district of Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Volunteer placements in Havana run the spectrum of community development, and will usually include several organized cultural immersion activities, such as Spanish lessons or dance classes.
Matanzas. This small city on the northern coast of Cuba is intersected by three rivers and is often called “The City of Bridges,” because there are at least 17 throughout the city. It has a population of around 150,000 and has a very artistic reputation. Volunteer work in Matanzas usually entails working at vocational art schools or museums and tutoring music students.
Varadero. This peninsula in northern Cuba is the most touristy area and is a popular location for nature and animal conservation projects. Cuba has an intricate and extensive cave system (over 30,000 caves) as well as a wealth of marine life to explore and help protect. Although Varadero is filled with all-inclusive resorts, it is also a good hub for volunteering in Cuba.
Education. Creating cultural awareness is the driving force that allows programs to operate in Cuba. Volunteer placements in education include a variety of activities that together help participants and Cubans meet and learn from each other. Cuba has well established and easy access to healthcare and medicine so volunteer programs focus more on providing insight rather than providing services.
Agriculture. There are agricultural volunteer placements in Cuba in both urban and rural settings. Urban volunteer opportunities focus on research and developing sustainable projects within urban areas. Rural placements include these factors as well, but are more focused on helping small local farmers, who grow a variety of fruits, tobacco, beans, and vegetables, and volunteering on Cuban farms. Cuba’s ability to sustain itself is made even more important by its isolation both geographically and politically.
Animal Conservation. As more and more tourists are able to enter Cuba, more development follows, which results in the loss of natural habitat. The time is now in terms of learning about how to properly balance the animal populations with the tourist population. Animal volunteer projects in Cuba include field work alongside knowledgeable leaders and hands-on experience learning identification and research techniques.
The exchange rate in Cuba is about to 1:1 with the U.S. Dollar so it is not particularly cheap, but it is very affordable when compared to other Caribbean islands. Nights in a mid-level hotel will cost around $30 and meals in mid range restaurants will cost around $5.
Currency. Exchanging USD for Cuban currency can be hit and miss within the country and you cannot get the local currency outside of Cuba. Cadecas, or exchange houses, are in most major cities. Credit or Debit cards that are issued by an American bank are not widely accepted and if they are, there will be an additional percentage added to the price. A Visa card issued by a bank outside of the U.S. is your best bet to be able to use an ATM or purchase goods. There are two currencies in Cuba, the Peso Convertible and the Peso Cubano, which makes a complex system even harder to keep straight. Since currency can be complicated in Cuba, most volunteer organizations will have items like excursions and transportation pre-arranged for you or have a leader which you can pay directly.
Individuals who volunteer in Cuba will usually stay in apartments near volunteer sites or mid-range hotels that are arranged by their volunteer organizations. Volunteers can expect running water and Western style toilets, but electricity may be slightly limited in some areas even within Havana. Accommodations are typically serviced, which means you will have someone clean and dress your room, just as you would expect staying in a hotel in the States.
Entry into Cuba is only granted to U.S. citizens under special circumstances and their trip must follow certain guidelines. Volunteer organizations in Cuba must have a U.S. Government OFAC License and volunteers will be issued a letter authorizing them to travel to Cuba for an educational/service exchange program. You may arrange your own travel, but it will be more complicated and you will need copies of specific documents, so it is recommended to use the services of your volunteer organization. Organizations that have been issued these licenses must ensure special criteria is met, therefore volunteers should expect volunteering in Cuba to be a fairly structured schedule of education and service.
- Bringing Items. Since the recent embargo has created a shortage of some items, organizations that arrange volunteer programs in Cuba will typically have an approved list of items that you may bring to donate. The process of transporting and physically donating goods in Cuba is quite structured and regulated.
- Non-U.S. Medical Insurance. individuals who volunteer abroad in Cuba will need a temporary insurance policy that is issued by a company outside of the U.S.
- Black Market. Black markets flourish in Cuba! Shelves of pirated DVDs and “name brand” items are pretty common throughout developing countries, but these items seem even more prevalent in Cuba. Be careful trying to bring them back home though!
- Multiple Currencies. Have multiple methods of using money at your disposal. The currency situation, especially in terms of USD, could change by the end of this sentence and then change back by the end of the day. Be sure to discuss the best payment methods with your volunteer organization in Cuba prior to departure.
- Extremely Safe. You don’t want to rely on this and allow yourself to make bad decisions, but Cuba is referred to as the safest island in the Caribbean. The strict laws and extra friendly people have created a very secure atmosphere.