Destin-Nation Cuba: Volunteering to Make Friends of Enemies

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It is a persistent misconception that Cuba's rigid socialist government already provides a solid amount of social aid to its citizens, and travel to the island is challenging for those with U.S. passports. There are ways to travel legally to Cuba as a US citizen, and volunteers from the states can attest that voluntourism to Cuba is increasingly popular.
It is a persistent misconception that Cuba's rigid socialist government already provides a solid amount of social aid to its citizens, and travel to the island is challenging for those with U.S. passports. There are ways to travel legally to Cuba as a US citizen, and volunteers from the states can attest that voluntourism to Cuba is increasingly popular.

Programs are expanding, help is always welcome, and an important takeaway for participants is an in-depth understanding of Cuban culture and history. Volunteering is a rewarding way to see a country that is on the brink of massive change.

Catherine Greenberg, Vice President of Volunteer Communications at Globe Aware, which runs voluntourism programs in Cuba, says that the social and educational value of a trip to the island nation is greater for volunteers than beach bums.

"Most travelers go and stay at a resort, which doesn't give you any real insight to the true beauty and challenges of the culture and the people," she says.

Vacationers from the United States tend to write off Cuba as a non-option for Caribbean travel thanks to sanctions imposed by the U.S. But, Fidel Castro's diminishing presence, and a potential loosening of sanctions (through initiatives such as The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act) means we're likely now seeing the final window of opportunity to visit socialist Cuba.

Take a look through the gallery below to learn more about Cuba's prime landmarks, popular cities, and destinations where travelers are encouraged to volunteer their time.

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Destin-Nation Cuba: Volunteering to Make Friends of Enemies

Once a name that evoked Cold War anxiety in the hearts of the U.S. citizens, and still a name that musters pride in the souls of Cubans, the Bay of Pigs is now a prime spot for diving and snorkeling. Visitors snorkeling here can climb out of the water, walk across the beach and climb in an antique car to make the trip to Operation Wallacea on the other coast, where they can assist researchers studying coral reefs, sea turtles and manatee populations.

Santa Clara is the fifth largest city in Cuba, and does everything it can to commemorate Che Guevera – the charismatic revolutionary whose body rests within city limits. Volunteer programs like those offered by the Cuba Solidarity program (geared mostly towards Europeans) that allow volunteers “to experience the Cuban Revolution firsthand” and to harness the revolutionary spirit as part of the volunteer experience. The perfect option for weekend communists.

The Orquideario in Soroa, in the Rosario Mountains, was badly damaged by hurricanes in 2008. Pastors for Peace is a US organization that brought humanitarian aid to the area to help rebuild, and orchestrates annual donations and visits to Cuba with its volunteer participants, known as “caravanistas.” The volunteers ride around in a beat up bus and get to try their hand at all sorts of things.

With its limestone mountains, fertile soil and caves, Vinales is at the top of many visitors’ wish lists. Catherine Greenberg from Globe Aware notes that “Our most popular area of volunteering is in the Pinar del Rio Province and the Vinales Valley. It is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the continued use of traditional agriculture methods.” There are many different types of projects afoot, but whatever travelers wind up doing, they will most likely end up taking frequent breaks to enjoy the view.

Another volunteer option is teaching English to Cuban citizens, in cities like Havana, Santiago or Cienfuegos, a city on Cuba’s southern coast with a large port, French flair and impeccably preserved colonial architecture. It is especially important that coastal Cubans learn English as travel restriction from the US are eased.

Healthcare is one of Cuba’s strongest assets, and ethical travel tours like those offered by Healthy Cuba allow volunteers to visit hospitals and view the medical system first hand, in small Cuban villages, the capital city of Havana, or colonial towns like Trinidad. Lend a hand, but also keep an open mind: Healthcare really was the best thing to come out of the revolution.

From the old town, to Revolution Square and beyond, Havana is a must-see for any traveler in Cuba. There’s a high concentration of voluntourism opportunities in the Cuban capital, and many volunteers heading elsewhere on the island begin their trip there. An interesting project is the capital-based voluntourism project PAWS Cuba (People for Animals Without Shelters in Cuba), an organization dedicated to providing medical help for the huge and growing number of stray cats and dogs throughout the country.

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