Perhaps you’ve always been able to visit Cuba. Or maybe you’re finally able to consider it for the first time (thanks America!). Either way, the time to get there is now, as it’s soon to be come the next sought-after destination. Opportunities for a gap year abound, with prospects to learn Spanish, volunteer or backpack and explore. So start packing and get ready for your gap year in Cuba.
Photo Credit: API Study Abroad
Your interests will dictate how you spend your Cuban gap year. Spending time in Cuba, whether it’s to learn the language, help the people or explore, will be both fulfilling and exciting.
It’s always a good idea to learn Spanish, as it’s the second most prominent language in the world. But learning Spanish in Cuba during your gap year isn’t just a good idea, it’s a great idea! The people are friendly, which means you’ll be practicing outside the classroom in no time. Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba are known to have schools.
Apple Language Courses has Spanish schools in all three of the above cities. Their courses vary from one week to two months and cover an array of topics. You can join an immersive Spanish class, learn one-on-one with a tutor, work with a mini-group and even learn to salsa or play the guitar. Students are encouraged to live with a host family to foster their Spanish speaking experience, although private apartments can also be arranged.
For those looking to give back and make their time in Cuba meaningful, there are a few volunteer options.
Volunteers interested in working with wildlife can help with bat conservation on the beautiful Varadero peninsula. Participants are given the opportunity to perform field research and learn important handling and recognition techniques. To top it all off you are able to work in beautiful caves that are off limits to the general public.
Those interested in effecting real change in local Cuban communities should look at volunteering with Globe Aware. Activities could include anything from repairing playgrounds to teaching English to organizing rehabilitation events for the elderly. Not only are volunteers helping Cuban citizens, they also learn about the Cuban culture, customs and daily life.
Whether you’ve been to Cuba before or it’s your first time, there’s plenty to discover during a with a travel focused gap year in Cuba.
Vibrant cities like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Trinidad provide the opportunity to immerse yourself into a vivacious culture. The nightlife in Havana is hard to beat with bars and clubs galore and salsa around every corner.
Trinidad is rich in history and colonial architect and, as such, is an established UNESCO World Heritage Site. Santiago de Cuba is the heart of the revolution and takes great pride in its historical significance. In whatever cities you visit, don’t miss out on the delectable Cuban food that is a mixture of Spanish, Caribbean, African and native Taino.
Nature lovers rejoice! Outside of the city centers, Cuba has a breadth of beaches and countryside for exploring. Las Terrazas is a spectacularly green ecosystem in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve that has zip-lining, lakes, hiking trails and swimming holes. Parque Nacional Topes de Collantes resides in the Sierra del Escambray mountains and is brimming with waterfalls and excellent hiking trails. Varadero Beach is the most famous in Cuba due to its sparkling white sands, caves and offshore cays.
Do note, however, that because of legal constraints, it's unlikely that you'll be able to fill a full year just traveling in Cuba, but it's a great destination to add onto a longer trip.
Planning Your Trip
Costs in Cuba are a bit higher than Central America, which is surprising for some tourists who may be expecting rock bottom prices. The country has a dual currency system, one for locals (CUP) and one for foreigners (CUC). Locals are able to get by earning less than $50 USD a month, while foreigners will be spending more for their time in Cuba.
United States based credit cards and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so be sure to bring plenty of cash for exchanging if that’s where your banks are located.
For a nice meal, you can expect to pay about $6 USD. A liter of water is $1.50, a beer $1 and a cappuccino $1.15. Rent in Cuba, like the rest of the world, changes depending on where you live. An apartment inside the city center is $470 a month while locations farther outside run at $270.
Health and Safety
Cuba has a strong police and military presence, making it a generally stable country. As in any foreign country, travelers should avoid local demonstrations should they arise. Pickpocketing and theft is known to occur in more crowded, touristy parts of cities. Be wary of friendly “jineteros” or hustlers, who are professional criminals looking to cheat tourists by offering themselves as tour guides or selling cheap goods.
Health care in Cuba is segregated and foreigners are taken to a separate “tourist hospital.” Procedures are often required to be paid for with cash in advance, either by you or your insurance company. In general, medical professionals are competent, but facilities are sometimes short on medical supplies or bed space. Be sure to bring enough of your personal prescriptions, as they may not be available for refill in Cuba.
Diseases to be extra vigilant of during your time in Cuba include dengue fever, chikungunya, cholera, traveler’s diarrhea and rabies. Be sure to protect yourself against mosquitos, thoroughly cook all food, only drink bottled liquids and stay away from animals you don’t know.
Contributed by Alecia Weaver
Visa requirements for Cuba differ based on your citizenship, so always check with your local embassy before traveling.
British, Australian and Canadian citizens are required to have a visa card before arrival in Cuba. Also mandatory is a passport valid upon entry (although it is encouraged to have it valid through the entirety of your stay), proof of a return flight home and approved travelers insurance. A Cuban visa card costs £15, is valid for 30 days, and can be extended another 30 days once you’re in the country.
US citizens must meet various requirements before the United States government will authorize them to visit Cuba. A few of the 12 categories include family visits, professional research, educational activities, religious activities, and volunteering. Have no fear though. Go Overseas has already spelled out for you how to volunteer in Cuba if you are a United States citizen.