Rightly famed for being the most musical nation on the planet, Cuba is a nation frozen in time. Full of decaying, neoclassical buildings and vintage American cars that make its capital - Havana - a constant joy to explore, Cuba has experienced major upheavals and challenges in its recent history.
A changing political landscape means that for the first time in several generations, Cubans can now own their own property, engage in private enterprise and even talk to visitors, things are looking up.
No-one knows where this will take Cuba in the long term, but for now it means it’s never been easier to visit, learn Spanish, volunteer and enjoy one of the most unique and exciting countries in the Caribbean.
Your base for the first 2 weeks is in the heart of Old Havana – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is a myriad of gorgeous neoclassical buildings packed with local people living cheek by jowl. At street level, there is a constant buzz with musicians playing their trade in the many fantastic bars that can be found in this hip neighbourhood.
You’ll be staying in a ‘Casa Particulare’ – a large Cuban apartment in a neoclassical tenement building in Old Havana. Like most of Old Havana, the architecture, exterior and communal stairs are safe, but in an overall dilapidated condition - indeed they invented shabby chic. Inside however, the apartment is pretty cool with a balcony overhanging the street letting the sounds of Havana roll in.
Punta Perdiz is on the southern Caribbean shores of Cuba, just outside the seaside town of Playa Giron - world renowned because of the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion in April 1961.
Punta Perdiz is adjacent to the Zapata Peninsula, where lies the ‘Gran Parque Natural Montemar’, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It contains the largest wetlands in the Caribbean, home to flamingos, manatee, crocodiles and the world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird. It has renowned scuba diving sites just off the shoreline – so the perfect place to learn and practice your scuba skills.
Here we have negotiated a special status for our volunteers, enabling you to all stay in the Punta Perdiz ‘Campismo’ – a campsite to you and I, which until now, only allowed Cubans to stay at, infact until recently, Cubans have not been allowed to mix with tourists in any shape or form so this will be a huge novelty and cultural progress.
Every Sunday on the Paseo del Prado Boulevard, artists set up workshops to share their creative talent with local kids for free. On any given Sunday, there are 40 or more artists and literally hundreds of kids drawing and painting using various materials, including up-cycling all manner of waste materials into sculptures and imaginative objects.
Part of our ‘donation initiative’ is to contribute to the energy and excitement of this event, by making discreet donations of materials and organising for you to assist the artists by offering guidance and encouragement to the kids.
Attendance is entirely voluntary, so you will need to use your imagination and fledgling Spanish language skills to encourage kids to get stuck in.
Here you will assist the Cuban Red Cross and the International Dive Centre with protecting the local beaches and shallow waters of the marine park from discarded litter and the lion fish endemic.
The main way of doing this is by snorkelling - using Hawaiian slings to 'spear' both the over populated Lion Fish and garbage laying on the reef, below the low tide mark. Tackling the beach – a bin bag does the trick.
Lion Fish are an introduced species with no natural predator. If you google it you will see that they are decimating indigenous species across the Caribbean. We are, in fact, their only predator! Spearing is an easy job as they are an acutely lazy, sand hugging fish.
While you’re there you’ll also participate in underwater surveys to log endangered species and changes to reefs and rates of growth.
Holiday camp it may be but there is work to be done. This Campismo is really run down but has bags of potential. Each Leap team will undertake to renovate a different part of the camp paving the way for the next and leaving a lasting legacy of their own.
The first few teams will renovate the sport and recreational facilities with a good lick of paint and new sports equipment. Basketballs, volleyballs, nets, and bibs etc will be provided to encourage some local games and good team spirit.
'Arco Iris' is a community centre in a particularly run down area between Old Havana and Centro. The centre is a 'home away from home' for kids whose domestic circumstances are difficult. As well as hands on renovation to make this building fit for purpose, you will also pack the centre with activities - after school homework supervision, academic classes e.g. teaching English, arts and crafts activities and drama and music.
It will be a privilege to work with such a group of fun loving kids and local people who are trying to create something special where they live.
Boxing is the country’s second favourite sport surpassed only by Cuba’s passion for baseball. Cubans teach their niños boxing skills early in life - whatever their background, little kids will find their way to their local boxing gym.
‘Rafael Trejo Gimnasio’ is one of the oldest boxing clubs in Havana having trained numerous Olympic champions. Here Hector Vinent Charon (a 2 time Olympic gold medallist) is in charge. He believes boxing instils confidence "effecting how you act in the classroom and on the street. It's not just boxing."
Despite this upbeat philosophy the Gimnasio looks pretty gloomy and hasn’t seen a lick of paint in decades. So, with the help of Vianko, our Director of Arts, and a team of young Cuban helpers, you’ll paint a colourful collage on the outside of the building, featuring boxers from the club who have gone on to represent their country and become legends of the sport.
There are 2 dance classes per week (in Havana, weeks 1-2 and 5-6) – each approximately one hour long, during which you will be taken through your paces; learning Salsa, Son, Rueda de Casino, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, the Rumba and perhaps a few other moves you haven’t heard of. Included in the cost.
The lessons are a short walk from your Casa, by a licensed dance instructor, and in the evenings there are MANY free live music venues where you can do your homework!
Your time in Havana will be a fascinating mix of cultural exchange and exploration lead by our amazing guides, including Jose Blanco Ramirez, otherwise known as VIANKO. Painter, poet, humourist and writer, Vianko is a celebrated academic with the University of Havana.
With his contacts and knowledge you’ll have access to parts of Havana not on the tourist trail and we guarantee you’ll meet some fascinating local Cubans. Included in the cost, except museum entry.
When you're in Havana (in weeks 1-2 and 5-6) you'll receive 3 hours of intensive group Spanish lessons, Monday to Friday. We consider this to be an integral part of the program, as direct interaction with the Cuban's, in our experience, makes for a more rewarding and enjoyable experience.
On arrival, your Spanish level will be assessed and the group assigned to beginners or intermediate classes. Included in the cost.
Cuba lies between the Atlantic (to the North) and the Caribbean (to the South). It is quieter than many Caribbean islands because of the difficulties of getting here from America. There are many diving areas along its 5646 km of coast. The Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), for example, is a marine reserve, which is sheltered from the prevailing South East winds. It has caves, drop-offs and wrecks.
Our partners at the International Dive Centre, can arrange an intro dive for you for about 45 cuc and/or a full scuba padi course.
You‘ll be busy 5 days a week and for the majority of the day, BUT your weekends and evenings are your own to let your hair down – we’re in Cuba after all. Our host in Cuba is an adventure outfitter and perfectly placed to get you organised:
Baseball Match Baseball has long been considered as Cuban as hand-rolled cigars! The Cuban national baseball team has won gold or silver in the past five Olympic games.
Road Trip to Baracoa On the eastern tip of Cuba within Guantánamo Province, Baracoa is the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and was its first capital.
Viñales South West of Havana lie Cuba’s famous tobacco farms in Viñales. Surrounded by a unique karst valley (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), tobacco plantations and atmospheric caves.
Maria la Gorda Further along to the southwest tip of Cuba, renowned for its diving, idyllic beaches, untouched nature and laidback vibe, Maria la Gorda is the perfect spot to while away some time under the Cuban sun.
Camagüey Also in the south east, built to stop on-going raids by pirates, the maze-like streets of Camaguey are slightly confusing, but nevertheless an amazing place of colour, culture and discovery. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We have four different teams departing for Cuba each year: January, April, July and September. Typically the program is six weeks long, taking in all the sights and experiences you'll find described on this page with plenty of downtime for you to explore the country as you please.
Particularly popular is the July departure date, which because of its timing and six-week duration, is an ideal fit for that gap between A-Level exams and results day, or for those on university summer holidays.
Want to join the six-week program and leave early? No problem, get in touch and we'll help you sort something out.