You might have heard a lot about Cuba in the news as the thawing-then-freezing-a-little-again U.S.-Cuban relationships pushed the Caribbean country into the spotlight. Cuba is a beautiful country, with a unique culture that has been somewhat sheltered from the world for decades. If volunteering is what you’re interested in, volunteering in Cuba isn’t super easy—the lack of internet can mean connecting with local groups is hard—but it is certainly possible! Read on to learn how to actually volunteer in Cuba.
6 Cuba volunteer FAQs
1. Can Americans volunteer in Cuba?
The big question—what volunteer work in Cuba are Americans allowed to do? The laws around American citizens traveling to Cuba have fluctuated in the past few years. (One thing is for sure, tourist travel is prohibited.) Travel to Cuba needs to fall under one of 12 categories—including support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes, where volunteering could potentially fit in as legal activities. There was a lot of worry when the “people to people” travel category was abolished under the Trump administration, as that was the category most American visitors were using to obtain their general license.
But “support for the Cuban people” may be a good substitute for US travelers. Under that category, you must “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Such activities must also enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities.” This can include how you spend your money—such as the requirement to rent a room from a private Cuban residence and eat at private owned restaurants. (You cannot spend your money in a way that benefits the Cuban government at any point.) But, you also need a full schedule of approved activities, and finding an organization that does not support the Cuban government could be difficult.
Also, it is required for visitors to have proof of non-U.S. health insurance when they visit Cuba, so make sure you have that! Many of the airlines can sell it to you.
With all of these different requirements, if you’re volunteering it makes sense to go with an organization that can ensure you are fulfilling all the legal necessities. A solid volunteer program will make sure you have your paperwork, your documentation for your records, your itinerary, and that your activities always fall under the legal category.
2. What are the Cuba volunteer requirements?
You can’t just waltz into volunteer work in Cuba, of course, you have to be sure that you have the skills and ability to truly make a difference. Volunteering is not about you—it’s not about how much fun you have or if you beef up your resume. Volunteering IS fun and WILL beef up your resume, but that’s not the main point—and if fun and work experience is what you want above all, plan a vacation or find an internship. Volunteering is about the community or environment or people in need. So you may need to do a little introspection—will you be a help or just a burden? Make sure it’s not the latter by checking out the different Cuba volunteer requirements.
Some of the volunteer opportunities in Cuba will require intermediate Spanish, and sometimes a specific skill set: if you want to help with hands on coral reef restoration you need to know how to dive! If you’ll be working out in the heat, you need to be able to do so without running a health risk. Some will require previous work or volunteer experience in the particular field, though it’s easy to find programs willing to give some first-time training.
As for visas, that depends on your citizenship, but if you’re going with an organization they should have someone on staff to advise you!
Of course, being a volunteer in Cuba is more than just about your Spanish vocabulary, there are a lot of intangibles you have to bring to the table. These include things like a willingness and ability to work on a team or independently, since different volunteer projects will have you in different settings. You should also be flexible in case scheduling changes or the needs of the organization change (though with a program and a fixed itinerary this may be unlikely. And of course, you need to have passion for whatever you are doing—don’t come dragging your feet! Volunteer teach English because you want to share your language and help others, sign up to medical volunteer Cuba because you care about people’s health and wellbeing, not because you’re trying to impress someone or feel like you “should.” Find what you’re passionate about.
3. What are popular volunteer projects in Cuba?
Some popular projects in Cuba are working in the arts and handicrafts, education, and environment and conservation. Environment also includes agriculture—volunteer and learn about Cuba’s farming systems, which have struggled, but have also seen more organic community farms springing up. If being in the fields isn’t your thing, look for conservation volunteering which is often on the beach! Volunteer to protect marine animals and sea turtles and protect coastal habitats. If your skills like more with hammer and nails, seek out some construction projects you can help with.
You can teach English - as interest in Cuba rises and more tourists come, knowing English could help Cuban citizens have more job opportunities. That includes the young people - volunteer in youth development and learn what young Cubans care about, and how they see their nation which could be on the brink of change. What does being Cuban mean to them? What are their dreams for the future?
4. Where are the most popular cities for volunteering in Cuba?
Most volunteer in Cuba programs will have a home base in Havana even if your volunteer worksite is out in the country, but there are still plenty of cities to see and enjoy in Cuba. Check them out below!
Volunteer in Havana
Havana is known for its gorgeous Old Town, with colorful, majestic architecture and lively Plaza de Armas. It’s a city full of new and exciting art and a great cafe scene, and of course, there are the famous classic cars. It's a city that's tough to explain, but fun to experience—and is highly recommended as a volunteer destination in Cuba.
A program called The Culture of Cuba will take you around Havana to experience some of the culture of the city and learn about the emerging urban agricultural movement. Meet with local farmers and also learn about the state of water supply, labor organizations, women’s health, and more.
With the volunteer program Best Programs, you can volunteer in health or educational programs in Havana. They don’t require experience, and they provide Spanish courses as well as cultural activities like salsa dancing.
Volunteer in Trinidad
If you want to experience Havana, but also explore other parts of the country, check out a program like Innovation in Action, which allows you to spend time both in Havana and the city of Trinidad. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage with well-preserved architecture and a fantastic location near the beach and mountains. With Innovation in Action you can learn design thinking—a way of studying and solving real life problems, learning about the Cuban experience from those who know best (Cuban locals, of course) and focus in on sustainable agriculture.
Volunteer in Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, called Cuba’s cultural capital, is known as the birthplace of major Cuban music genres and a hub of Afro-Caribbean culture. It’s a usual stop for visitors to Cuba and has a history of revolution and entrepreneurship. You can volunteer in Santiago de Cuba by teaching English with Best Programs, while also picking up some Spanish and dance moves! Where better to learn Cuban dance than a city that helped give the world salsa?
5. How much does it cost to volunteer in Cuba?
The cost of Cuba volunteer opportunities may vary widely depending on the program, from $600 a week to almost $3,000 a week. The more expensive ones usually include a high quality educational component, with instructors and tailored classes along with volunteering, and extensive travel in comfortable environments. The more frugal programs have less guided education and more minimal accommodations.
Before you pay, make sure you know what the money goes towards. That’s the ethical thing to do—make sure you’re not paying a high middle man fee; you want your money to go to local staff and high impact projects. It’s also the legal thing to do! You can’t let your money fund anything government related if you’re an American citizen. A good volunteer program in Cuba, and anywhere really, will be transparent about its finances.
While you can pay program fees online, once you’re in Cuba it’s all cash based. American credit and debit cards are banned in Cuba, so you have to exchange your money for cash and make sure you have enough cash for your entire visit. U.S. dollars have a penalty, so some Americans exchange for Euros in the U.S. and then exchange their Euros for CUC when they land in Havana. Cuba has two currencies– the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). Both are legal to use, but CUC is more common. At the time of writing, the exchange rate from USD is 1 to 1 ($1.00 USD = 1.00 CUC).
When you’re planning your trip budget, make sure to budget for tips. Cuban workers don’t make a high wage, and tipping 10 - 20% is the right thing to do! Food can also be expensive in Cuba, although private accommodations and transportation are on the cheaper side. Remember, Americans cannot spend their money on military-owned hotels or in other ways that support the military. In fact, there is an entire list of entities Americans can’t spend their money on—check it out here.
6. Are there any red flags to look out for when it comes to Cuba volunteer opportunities?
- If the volunteer organization can’t give you any idea of what you would be doing. Many volunteer programs ask you to be flexible, but if they can’t even give a couple of options, that might mean they have nothing lined up and plans can fall through.
- If they don’t seem to be aware of the laws they need to follow. They should be up on changes in the law!
- If the program can’t talk to you about long term, sustainable impacts. You want to make sure this isn’t some project simply created to draw in naive, paying foreigners.
- If there aren’t Cuban staff. If this is entirely run by outsiders (not likely in Cuba, but it could happen), be wary that they might not have have local community support.
How to find & choose your volunteer Cuba program
So how do you know what volunteer opportunities in Cuba are right for you? Research, introspection, more research. Too vague? Try these steps:
1. See what’s out there
Google, ask friends of friends who have gone to Cuba, check out the GoAbroad reviews, or sign up for our handy tool to help provide you with options. Internet isn’t reliable in Cuba so there may be great organizations that don’t have a web presence—this is where finding things through a network can be handy. Join Cuba groups on FB or Couchsurfing where people could give recommendations! (Though be sure to vet them as thoroughly as possible, and get in touch before heading off on adventure.)
2. Think about what you can contribute
Do you have skills in diving and knowledge of marine life? Teaching abilities? Knowledge of art and love working with kids? Are you passionate about solving complex problems? Can you be a skilled medical volunteer in Cuba? Think about what you can bring to help others. This ensures that you don’t come just to “take” an experience, but also to provide valuable skills.
3. Now re-focus your research
If you have decided that you have the skills to teach English, awesome! Focus on that and hone in on programs where you can teach. Would you rather hang with nature than people? Look into conservation projects! Centering your search around what you can bring to the table can help figure out the best fit.
4. Ask questions
Once you’ve picked a program or two that fits your skillset, passion, and budget (oh pesky money!), ask a lot of questions. Where will the money go? How will you be “supporting the Cuban people”? Do they take care of legal requirements? You have to be careful to be sure you aren’t giving money to the Cuban military or government OR supporting an organizations that could be construed as as “anti-American” but IS supporting local Cubans! So double, no, triple check government sponsored volunteer work in Cuba. It can be a tightline to walk, which is another reason going with a well-vetted program can be useful.
Get ready to pack your bags & do some good—on island time!
Organizing volunteer work in Cuba can seem complex, but with a respected, qualified program, a lot of the worries are taken care of for you. Don’t let the legalities and logistics stop you from seeing this beautiful island nation, or experiencing its music, art, wildlife, and people. There’s a volunteer program out there that can help you help others by finding the right fit for your skills and passion. With a little research and planning, you’ll be on your way!