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Cuba Vacation As a Volunteer

Travel in Cuba

Volunteer trip in and around Varadero December, 2013
Duration: 7 days
Island: CUBA
Budget: Around $2500

Off the beaten path of things to do in Cuba include volunteering to help the locals with various projects. The organization I was with, Animal Experiences International is a Canadian organization that offers volunteer positions involving animals around the world. Our Cuba trip was led by a young woman, named Melissa, who happened to have an interest in bat research. Growing up with a Columbian mother, she spoke Spanish fluently and on a previous trip to Cuba, connected with a local group of cavers who research bat populations to protect their habitats, by doing regular counts to keep track of endangered species. Our group consisted of six women, from all over Canada. Three  teenage sisters traveling with their parents over the Christmas holidays came from British Columbia, Melissa and my room mate were from Ontario and I joined from Alberta. We spent evenings on the beautiful beaches of the Cuban all inclusive resorts in Varadero, while in the morning we were driven to the caves to meet the local team. 

Volunteering isn’t for everyone. It’s important to choose trips carefully according to your interests and be confident in the organization you select. Animal Experiences International requested a health report from our doctors to make sure we were physically fit before we left and vaccinated for rabies despite the low risk. I was more scared of the stray dogs and cats than of bats. To make sure we had access to healthcare on the island, we had to have special travel insurance for volunteers. AEI made all the hotel and travel arrangements before we arrived in Cuba. I tend to stay as local as I can. My volunteer trips in 2013 and 2015 were with Canadian non-profits.

Earth Watch is a well established organization that has projects around the world, but they are usually out of my budget.  After one of our cave tours we went to visit another volunteer project, where many of the volunteers were from the United States. Turns out the easiest way to travel to Cuba from the USA at that time was to have an affiliation with an internationally recognized volunteer agency. Their Cuba vacation focus was on agriculture, which I assumed might be labour intensive, though many older people were on the trip.

Because my plane came in a day later than everyone else’s, I missed orientation. The caves were quite far from the airport, though our driver for the week seemed accustomed to the locales. He was sure-footed on the limestone even in dress shoes when he delivered lunch. Straight off the plane, he helped me find the others in the dark. The first cave wasn’t too far from the training center. I met everyone and received a quick briefing on how to identify the bats by sex and species since I only knew the big and little browns as we have them in Canada. The Jamaican fruit bat was the most common in Cuba. The harp traps were set up when I arrived, though I helped take them down. Harp traps are generally used to catch birds, but we were right outside a cave after dusk, making the bats easy to snag.

Our mission was to catch, weigh, measure wing span, identify the species, tag, band and sex the various bats in the caves we visited. Because I wasn’t vaccinated for rabies, the group was extra careful with me. The vaccine is about a thousand dollars for three doses that have to taken within three weeks. Not realizing this, I had left the vaccine decision too long. Had I stayed longer, I probably could have been vaccinated in Cuba for a fraction of the cost. My friend took that approach when she went to Thailand to work with animals. Now Animal Experiences International has made vaccination mandatory. Statistically speaking, few people die from rabies from bat bites. In Canada it’s not mandatory to have rabies vaccine when doing bat counts, probably because we are completely covered due to the climate. I wasn’t bitten, but two of the other ladies were. The most obvious task for me would have been to record the data, but one of our team members wanted to be the dedicated recorder as she wasn’t the most comfortable around the bats. Once the bats were caught in the bag, I safely weighed them.

Another common health risk in caves with high bat populations is histoplasmosis, a lung infection developed through exposure to fungal spores found in bat guano.  Going with AEI, they provided proper NOISH respirators with the appropriate filters.  Given I had worked in labs for nearly a decade, I knew how to fit test and maintain them. Histo as it’s known among cavers has significantly higher risks of infection than a rabies from bat bites. Sick bats are typically easy to spot and avoid; however, every night I took apart my respirator to thoroughly clean it. 

Because the others on my trip were so much younger with less experience in research and caves, they often had trouble with the conditions, including having to wear and take care of their respirator. Being the old lady on the trip, I advised them on proper respirator care, especially underground. Dust often plugs the filters, making it useless against pathogens. Mine was stored in its original plastic bag. The girls complained that the combination of heat and restricted air flow from wearing the mask for only a couple hours lead to the feeling of claustrophobia. I was comfortable enough to appreciate and explore the massive passages underground. My complaint was that I didn’t have enough opportunity to wander around underground.

In any research field, there’s plenty of “hurry up and wait” moments. The first night was busy giving everyone a good experience, though the following nights were slower. I have often heard that the best way to lose volunteers is to have them idle; however, the less active nights were arguably more important as we found pregnant and endangered bats in the area. Knowing a roosting site was nearby, makes applying for protection easier. A new solar light from LuminAID worked great for our night work as well as inside the cave when I remembered to charge it properly. My roommate was ready to go home before the trip ended, where as I wanted to extend my Cuba trip for at least another couple of weeks. The cave systems were nothing that I could experience in Canada.

I read on trip advisor that it is possible to get a guide to take you to Santa Catalina cave, though I’m not sure of the details. With volunteer trips as part of a Cuba vacation, we have unique opportunities; instead of just hanging out on the Cuba resorts drinking. While voluntourism often comes under intense scrutiny, we learned in passing about the hardships the Cuba caving group experienced finding people to protect the bats, caves and habitat. Having volunteers with proper protective equipment, helped them apply for government protection of the mangroves, which may have been removed to construct a new resort. Environmentally, keeping the mangroves reduces Cuba’s vulnerability to tropical storms, not just conserve bat habitat.

When I go back for another Cuba holiday to explore some of the other cave systems, I will learn more Spanish. In 2008, on a caving club trip to Mexico to map some of the dry land caves in Playa Del Carmen as well as do some diving in caverns, we had some Spanish lessons. AEI didn’t advocate that we make an effort to learn, since our leader was fluent. I told a club member about my upcoming Cuba trip. He strongly recommended that I know some to facilitate communication. The Duolingo application is by far my favorite way to learn a myriad of languages including Spanish while I wait in the grocery check out line, next to trying to speak to my friend’s children and watching Dora the Explorer. I would love to volunteer again, but maybe leave a few more weeks to explore with the local caving club and as always make sure I have enough local currency.

One of the harder things to do in Cuba is access Santa Catalina Cave, outside of Matanzas. Its unique features,of the stalagmites were shaped like massive mushrooms, are not found anywhere else except on a Cuba vacation. Some  geologists have taken samples and done scanning electron microscope studies to come up with a hypothesis of how these speleothems formed in stages with changing water levels. The stems are pretty straight-forward and seen in other caves around the world; however the caps are the anomaly. The presence of microbes that don’t need light to survive would have created the caps near the water table as all the caps are roughly the same height in each cave chamber. 

At the first stage of the mushroom speleothem formation of forming the stem, the cave must have been dry with water dripping from the ceiling, because the core had a typical stalagmite chemical signature of mostly limestone. Next rising water levels in the cave formed conical calcite rafts (calcite crystals). Build up around the stalagmite happened when water from the ceiling or the crystal weight caused the rafts to sink, depositing onto the speleothem. Further water level rises flooded the cave causing aragonite (calcium carbonate crystal structure) cave clouds to form on both the stalactites and stalagmites. To form the mushroom cap, the water would have receded again forming through a mineralization process influenced by microbes.

Humberto and Melissa at Cuevas de Bellamar in Matanzas about 65 km west of Varadero, a popular Cuba resort. Bellamar is one of Cuba’s oldest tourist attractions, opened for tourism since the 1860s. Before going underground there is a museum that shows historically how caves in the region were explored. Some of the Cuba travel services have tours to the developed caves for visitors to safely explore without the need of any special equipment. Usually the surface portion had a small museum with information about when the caves were discovered and the original uses. The sisters were joined by their parents on these parts of the Cuba holiday. From looking at more recent photos the cave lighting has had upgrades, which means more moss will be found.

Part of our trip fees went directly to the project organizers to help them buy nets and harp traps. As is custom for our caving group, we often leave some of our equipment behind as well.  While I thought my hiking shoes were valuable, because so few women cave, our guides didn’t accept them. They happily accepted my helmet and extra lights. AEI donated our respirators to protect them against histoplasmosis. I hoped that they would be able to secure funding for new filters.  The following volunteer group in spring 2014, stayed closer to the caves rather than traveling back and forth from the Cuba resorts. I would have enjoyed a more local experience, which is more typical within the caving community. Visiting the AEI website, now they have hostels available closer to the sites and fees include taking a Global Travel Academy course for a certificate in International Volunteering.

The Cuba resort we stayed at, the Dauphin, was nothing overly special, but comfortable. I was seriously jealous of my roommate’s ability to sleep through anything. In a new country, I’m always restless, feeling as though if I sleep I’ll miss something. The food was pretty plain. As a vegetarian, in the morning, I would order a massive omelet at the resort breakfast buffet and hide the leftovers in my bag to add to my bread cheese lunch that would be delivered to the cave site. Our last night together we went out for a fondue that I just couldn’t do eat after a week of bread and cheese. Some of the other restaurants nearby were excellent. 

other Things to do in Cuba Besides Caves

1. Snorkeling

Because storms in Canada amplified the ocean waves during my Cuba vacation, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go. Knowing about the clear water, I brought my snorkel, mask and fins. Luckily, the very last day, the ocean was calm enough to swim. While Cuba has fantastic visibility, we didn’t see much, unlike Cozumel in Mexico with its colorful reefs. The souvenirs were so much cheaper at the snorkeling place as compared to Cuba resorts, but as usual, I ran completely out of money by the end of the trip.

 

2. Special events

While shopping in Varadero we found out that some surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club had a concert not too far from our hotel. Melissa and I enjoyed the music, while my roommate appreciated the experience. At the concert the introductions were done Spanish, English and Russian. Russians vacation in Cuba, because they don’t need visas to visit.

3. Bird Watching

On our last day together, Melissa arranged for us to head out into the jungle with a guide to do some bird watching. We were all pretty tired after a full week of activity, though I enjoyed our guide’s enthusiasm. For all my interests, bird watching requires too much stillness and patience for me.

Bellamar

Only a section of the cave is open to Cuba tour groups, about 1 km of the 3 km. I would love to see all 28 underground rooms. The museum above the cave has many interesting artifacts including instruments used to survey and explore the cave, samples of various minerals, as well as a skeleton under glass.

To go into the cave, people walk down a staircase, through a door and onto the catwalks. Stalactites and stalagmites are still growing through surface droplets. 

 

 

Santa Catalina

This is a different chamber than the one above filled with much smaller and more uniform mushroom speleothems. While it can be difficult to get to without a Cuba tour operator, it’s worth the visit.

Claude, Humberto’s colleague led us through another passage where bats spent more time. We had to use our masks, because everything was covered in bat guano. I had trouble keeping up with the group, because I had to examine all the unique cave features.

 

Saturno

Saturno Cave much like Bellamar has been developed for Cuba tours. The staircase leading into the cenote is well maintained with handrails. A bus load of people follow a path down to the cave, swim in a cenote filled with warm, clear water, quickly dry off and head to another destination.

For longer rest stops, there is a small cafe/snack bar. Next Cuba vacation I would like to SCUBA dive in the centote.

 

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About The Author

Sima

Sima loves to explore, whether it's in the mountains near her home or abroad. When she's home, away from the computer, she visits local galleries, events and exhibitions with friends. Her other passion is writing stories for other blogs, magazines or anthologies.

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