The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is has just over 11 million inhabitants. From fighting for its independence from Spain in 1902, to becoming a communist state in 1959, to having survived over 50 years of U.S. economic sanctions, teen history buffs will be in their element. Even so, there's something for everyone here, whether you love salsa dancing or prefer hiking in untouched rainforest. Back when your parents were your age, Cuba was off-limits to any travelers, so take advantage of it’s newly open doors! It’s the perfect destination for the renegade high school traveler looking for a place where people leave with more questions than they came with.
Cuba offers something for everyone. You will find yourself at home no matter your interests, whether you’d rather identify bats in a cave or if you’d prefer visiting historic art galleries. Here are some cities you can’t miss for high school in Cuba:
Havana. Cuba’s bustling capital and cultural hub. This urban location will orient you with Cuba’s revolutionary history. Prepare to be awed by the sights and sounds of refurbished, bright colored 1950’s cars blasting salsa music. Walk through town to Havana Vieja, the city’s old historic center and Unesco World Heritage site. Some High school programs in Havana will arrange meetings with Cubans students, shop owners, and artists so you can get to know more about the Cuban experience. Take a locally-guided night tour around Havana and its museums. You can’t leave without dancing the night away to son and salsa!
Trinidad. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1988, Trinidad is a Spanish colonial settlement that is stuck in the 1800’s. It was built from the riches provided by sugar cane crops, and boasts European colonial-style mansions. While tourists have discovered the city’s charm, it hasn’t lost its tranquil allure. You’ll hear the clop clopping of horses on the cobblestone streets and street musicians strumming their guitars. Teens who claim to be art and history buffs will delight in the museum scene, and who wouldn’t enjoy heading to the nearby beach afterward.
Cayo Coco. This tropical island paradise is right off of central Cuba. If you’re into environmentalism, you will love its white-sand beaches and coral reefs. Before you become a complete beach bum, don’t miss out on exploring the lagoons and marshes. In these watery areas, you can spot the white ibis and one of the largest colonies of pink flamingos in the Americas.
High School Programs in Cuba
For over 50 years, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. That is changing, and some programs are exposing Cuba to high schoolers who are curious about the country’s history and who would like to make a difference. Some high school programs in Cuba are open to more nationalities than others. Sign up early for your program, as spots get sold out quickly! Most trips run during the summer between June and August.
Since Cuba is a relatively small country,programs will use the limited time span and offer different adventure travel opportunities. Go swimming in the ocean or under the Cortinas waterfall, and be whisked away to pristine Caribbean islands. Hikers will have a chance to explore Cuba’s untouched mountain ranges. If hiking isn’t for you, then hop on a horse and go riding through the nature preserves.
See what it’s like to live and work in Cuba while helping the locals through community service and volunteerism projects. Learn about Cuba’s environment from conservationists, and help grow vegetables in a community garden that will feed children’s day care centers. You will contribute to economic development while learning what it’s like to live on the day-to-day in Cuba. Take a trip to one of the many UNESCO world heritage sites, like the Las Terrazas community, a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. Explore nature and learn how the local farmers are preserving the land. If you are into wildlife conservation, you can’t leave without visiting the Cienega de Zapata reserve. It’s home to the Cuban crocodile!
In addition to volunteering, look into design thinking programs, in which you will use what you learn from locals to design your own solutions to real-world development problems. You will leave this country with a refreshed perspective on environmental conservation and community projects.
Most high school programs in Cuba last about one to two weeks, and do not require much prior experience. You may be asked to provide a recommendation letter, so be aware of that requirement. You will gain valuable community service hours that you can add to your resume!
Scholarships & Costs
Cuba is an affordable country to travel within, but getting there is still more expensive than it would be to travel to other Caribbean countries. High school programs in Cuba can, therefore, be pricey, because they involve more hotel stays and traveling between different sites, as opposed to connecting students with homestays. Check to see if the program’s price includes the flight to Cuba, it isn’t likely, but it is worth a try. No matter what, don’t let the costs intimidate you. You will breathe a sigh of relief after checking out this list of scholarships as well as fundraising opportunities that can help your raise money for your trip.
Accommodation & Visas
Since 2015, the U.S. has begun to open diplomatic relations with Cuba, making it easier than ever to enter the country. Refer to GoAbroad's Embassy Directory for information. Travelers from the UK are expected to bring tourist cards and passports valid for at least six months from the date of arrival into Cuba. Regardless of nationality, you will need to obtain a visa. Your program must be licensed to bring high schoolers into Cuba. They should help you with the visa process. Once you’re accepted, find out what the process is.
Most high school programs in Cuba will shuttle you from an urban center to a rural eco lodge or a sweet tent campsite over the course of a program. This country is small, but there is a lot to eat, see, and do. Since many programs will have you change your location every day, don’t be surprised if you end up at a modest hotel or cabins instead of with a host family. Most accommodations have been vetted by on the ground staff and past participants, ensuring all teens on the programs stay in safe, comfortable places for the duration of their travels.
Don’t confuse comfortable by Cuban standards to match what you’re used to at home, though. Your favorite amenities, like air conditioning or en suite bathrooms, might not be available. It’s all part of the experience though; enjoy being pushed out your comfort zone in these ways (it’s good for you!).
Benefits & Challenges
High school programs in Cuba will give you valuable insight on how far a “developing” country can go. In Cuba depends on foreign aid from countries like Venezuela, and it is a developing country. What this means for you is that you lunch costs a measly $1 in most places, and movies cost a few pennies. Most people live off of $15-25 a month, yet poverty hasn’t impeded incredible educational and medical advancements. Education is free, and medically, Cuba is ahead of the game in some ways. In 2015, Cuba became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
As a student, you will benefit from a low cost of living in Cuba. However, one challenge is adjusting to the lack of comforts from home. Internet costs a whopping $6 an hour for dial up, so be prepared to go online less than you’re used to.
Prepare to fall in love with this country that few high schoolers have seen. You will probably be the first of your friends who will be able to say they not only visited Cuba, but made an impact there on their travels.