Cuba | Cultural Exploration

Arts, Language, & Adventure on an Island in Transition

Take a road trip across this colorful and complex island, from Havana east towards Santiago de Cuba, and witness history in the making as the long freeze in Cuba – U.S. relations begins to thaw. During your student travel in Cuba, connect with Cubans to learn firsthand about the Cuban Revolution, contemporary music, film, baseball, Hemingway, the Bay of Pigs invasion, sustainable agriculture, Cuban sports and culture, or the folk religion of Santería — all through direct people to people interaction.

July 4, 2018  –  July 22, 2018
At A Glance:
  • Adventure
    Outdoor exploration, hiking, biking, swimming, and other active pursuits
  • Language
    Opportunities to practice or learn the language of your host country
  • The Arts
    Exploration of music, dance, art history, architecture, theatre, and the creative arts
    The Arts
Completing grades 9 – 12
US Gateway City:
Cultural Exploration
19 days
Typical Group:
14 – 16 students, 2 leaders
$ 6,890 + airfare


  • Traverse the island as you road trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba
  • Visit an organic farm and cooperative and learn about Cuba’s “special period”
  • Get to know Cuban students, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs
  • Learn to salsa dance, then swim in the crystal, blue waters of a cenote

Leader Profile: MELANIE MANUEL

Education: Villanova University, B.S., International Business; Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, M.S., Bilingual Intercultural Education

As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in the Universidad del Valle's Bilingual Intercultural Education program in Sololá, Guatemala, Melanie finished her master’s in education, learning with… read more

As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in the Universidad del Valle’s Bilingual Intercultural Education program in Sololá, Guatemala, Melanie finished her master’s in education, learning with Mayan educators how to teach traditional and cultural literacy in Spanish and indigenous languages. She acquired a working knowledge of Mayan Quiché as the only non-Mayan in her program. Through the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, Melanie spent a spring semester in Chile researching street art as a tool for teaching language and elevating cultural literacy. Melanie currently teaches high school Spanish in Philadelphia. She also teaches World Language Methods courses at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Next year Melanie will teach middle school Spanish at the American School in London. She has led Putney’s Language Learning in Argentina, Community Service Ecuador and the Galápagos, Cultural Exploration Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, & Fiji, and Skiing in Patagonia programs, and has worked as an instructor in Pre- College Madrid and Pre-College Barcelona. Melanie is fluent in Spanish.


Departure • Travel Day • Meet your fellow high school student travelers and one or more of your leaders in Miami, and fly together to Havana, Cuba. To learn more about how we organize travel, click here.

Havana • 5 days • Begin your trip with an informative orientation on Cuba’s history, geography, and culture. Friendly Cuban students are your guides as you explore the city’s vibrant neighborhoods, including the remarkably preserved colonial seat of Habana Vieja, the crowded streets and funky folk art alleyways of Centro Habana, and the elegant subdivided mansions in the thriving residential neighborhood of Vedado. Connect with Cuban students to learn about their lives, hear their perspectives, and form your own questions about Cuba’s national identity, state-run media, dual currencies, education and public health systems, and more. Visit a working organic farm outside of Havana to learn about  sustainable farming methods put into place out of necessity during Cuba’s “special period” in the 1990s. Spend an afternoon working with artists in a printmaking studio, and meet renowned musicologist Alberto Faya to learn about his life and music in Cuba.

Trinidad and the Sierra del Escambray • 3 days • Traverse Cuba’s interior to discover the colonial city of Trinidad. Stay in private homes, casas particulares, and get to know your Cuban hosts. Take a day hike to a waterfall and swimming hole in Topes de Collantes National Park and explore with Cuban friends. Connect with Cubans at a neighborhood CDR watchdog group whose purpose is to uphold the principles of the Revolution at the barrio level, visit local artists’ and musicians’ studios, and visit a temple dedicated to the Afro-Cuban folk religion of Santería.

Students explore the culture of Trinidad Cuba on our student travel program

Lake Hanabanilla • 2 days • Venture into the Sierra del Escambray mountains and stay in a Soviet-era hotel, well situated to explore this undiscovered region. Hike off the beaten path to nearby verdant and pristine mountain ridges. Eat lunch on an island in the lake’s center and choose to return by foot or by boat. Take time to hone in on your independent project focus.

Cayo Santa Maria • 2 days • Travel to pristine Cayo Santa Maria on the northern coast and stay in a rustic eco-resort on the ocean. En route, spend an afternoon in historic Santa Clara meeting with young artists in this university city and learning about Che Guevara’s revolutionary legacy here. Make a day trip to the coastal town of Caibarien and go sailing or snorkel in crystal clear water. Reflect on your journey thus far and prepare for your trip east.

Baracoa • 3 days • Next, board a morning flight and venture east to the quaint oceanside town of Baracoa, located in Cuba’s oriente. Learn about Baracoa’s indigenous Taino roots and its legacy as the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba. Stay with fellow students in a casa particular, and get to know your Cuban hosts. Visit a primary school to work with children and teachers on arts and environmental projects. Get outdoors and explore the region’s gorgeous natural surroundings including its beaches, waterfalls, and mountains.

Santiago de Cuba • 3 days • Cap off the trip with three nights in vibrant Santiago de Cuba. Located on the southeasternmost reach of the island on the shores of the brilliant Caribbean Sea, and at the foot of the pine-clad Sierra Maestra mountain range, Santiago also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution. Today the city is a vibrant center of literature, art, and music. It is close to both the mountains and the beach, and its population is a stimulating melting pot of Haitian, African, and Spanish influences. Meet with a Santero to learn about this Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition, visit a working hand-rolled cigar factory, or learn to dance salsa in an open-air plaza. Meet with a local expert to hear a talk on Cuban history from the Revolution to today. On your last night, enjoy a farewell dinner and present your independent project to your group and Cuban friends.

Return • Travel Day • Fly from Santiago de Cuba to Miami with your group and a leader, then continue on to your final destination. To learn more about how we organize travel, click here.

This itinerary represents our best projection of the group’s schedule.  However, we may implement changes designed to improve the quality of the program.

My expectations for my program were without a doubt exceeded. After the first day, it became clear to me that each thing I was doing in Cuba was nothing like what I would be doing on a vacation. With Putney, everything we did had a purpose.

— Jacqueline K., Pembroke Hill School, Leawood, KS

A Day in the Life: HAVANA

Due to the traveling nature of this student program abroad, each day is different. Here is a snapshot of a day in Havana.

9 AM • Breakfast at our residence
10 AM • Group visit to a printmaking or artist’s studio in Old Havana
1 PM • Explore by bici taxi and lunch at a paladar in Old Havana
2 PM • Visit the Museo de la Revolución and wander an open air market
6 PM • Return to our residence for down time or take an afternoon trip to the beach
7 PM • Dinner at a family-run paladar
8 PM • Attend a jazz concert or walk to the seaside malecón to practice your Spanish
10 PM • Group meeting to discuss the day and plans for tomorrow

Students get to know Cuban teens in Havana on our cultural exploration program in Cuba


What to Expect

Travel to Cuba • This summer program in Cuba is open to students with a genuine interest in exploring Cuba through the People-to-People general license approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Independent Project • During your travels in Cuba, engage in an independent project to better understand life here. Possible topics include Cuba’s dual currencies, Cuban music and dance, gender in Cuba, the ‘special period,’ equity and race in Cuba, communism versus socialism, current U.S. – Cuba relations, Cuba’s small but growing private sector, and many more. You present your independent project to your peers and Cuban friends at program’s end in Havana.

Physical Activity • This summer program is physically active. Movement is a part of daily activities — walking the streets of Havana, swimming, or hiking in Topes de Collantes National Park. On excursions there will be opportunities to hike, swim, snorkel, kayak, and more. You do not need to be at peak fitness to participate, but it is important that you have a desire to be physically active, and that you are excited about trying all activities.

Accommodations • Living accommodations in Cuba are simple compared to what we are used to in the U.S. or elsewhere. In Havana and in Santiago, we stay at a hotel in mostly double rooms, each air-conditioned, with private bathrooms. In other locations along our journey, we stay in a combination of private bed and breakfasts hosted by Cuban families, and simple, clean bungalows where students share a room with other students in the group. Leaders reside together with the students throughout the program.

Meals • We begin each day with a traditional Cuban desayuno at our residence or with our Cuban hosts. For lunches and dinners, we often find small house-restaurants, called paladares, or hit the markets to purchase food for a picnic.

Eric just seems more confident. He was amazed at how his language skills improved. The students and leaders encouraged him to be who he is and move out of his comfort zone. The program exceeded expectations on all fronts.

— Julie & Noah Fleischmann, Cincinnati, OH

Ask Us

Call Lauren at 802.387.5000 or email

The Cultural Exploration Cuba summer program is directed by Lauren McDowell. If you have questions, are interested in receiving more detailed information, or would like to talk further about the program or any of our summer student travel programs, please get in touch!

Lauren McDowell

Washington and Lee University, B.A., Spanish, B.A., Economics

Lauren lived in Seville, Spain, during college and has been on the go ever since. She has led Putney programs to Ecuador, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Spain. Lauren has worked with Putney since 2000 and has created and cultivated partnerships between Putney and many small villages throughout Central and South America. When not traveling, Lauren can be found outdoors soaking up southern Vermont’s seasonal extremes, practicing yoga, reading, and Nordic skiing. She looks forward to the day when her three sons will join Putney groups themselves. Lauren coordinates programming in Ecuador and Cuba, and acts as our liaison to the Putney Open Door Fund scholarship foundation.