As of today, Americans still need justification to be in Cuba. Tourism travel is banned. Thankfully, there are 12 approved licenses under OFAC that require no advance approval for travel to Cuba.
People-to-People (P2P) travel is the most general and easiest applicable license. Unfortunately, you’ll find most P2P approved tours are at least $2,000. That was too much for my blood! So I found a program called Jakera Cuba.
Everything I’m stating in this review is my own opinion based on my own experiences. The intended purpose of this review is to give an honest assessment of the program for any who may be considering enrolling. After all, if you’re going to spend your hard earned money, you should be informed.
I thought the program might be just a little too good to be true! The cost would be $420 for my one week of participation, versus more than quadruple that for other tours. My intended program would include Spanish classes every morning and salsa dancing classes every afternoon. I figured there should be room for exploring in all of the other free time.
I reached out via the website’s contact link. I recall it taking a couple of days to get a response. And the response, and all subsequent communication, was with one individual (we’ll call him Tom). Tom was always very polite, laid back and positive. He’s from Scotland and apparently originally started Jakera in Venezuela. Now he’s expanding the program into Cuba with his business partner, let’s call him Brandon. Tom sent me an “application” and I put that in quotes because it wasn’t really much of an application. Really just an information form. There was no question about why I wanted to enroll or what I was hoping to achieve. No sense that I was competing for acceptance in this program. Seemed like a formality really. A necessary formality though, of course.
Tom sent a program field manual. He suggested that I book my flight to Cuba through ABC Charters and that my trip would be covered under the Education/P2P license (I priced other charter companies and did indeed decide on ABC). It’s probably important to note here that Jakera is a foreign company, formed in the UK. However, when I expressed to Tom my concern that Jakera wouldn’t qualify as an approved organization under U.S. jurisdiction, as is required for education/P2P licenses, Tom informed me that to cover that requirement, the company had filed a U.S. LLC as well. I was immediately set at ease. We’re all good legally!
After I returned the application, Tom sent me an invoice showing my program total: $420 + $60 for airport transfers + $70 single room supplement = $550. Still reasonable I thought, especially compared to other tour companies. The single supplement was actually dropped because I did eventually get a roommate. So that brought my total down to $480. The invoice included bank information for me to wire money to the company’s (or whoever’s) bank account, a foreign bank. I was not at all comfortable with that. I asked Tom could I just bring cash and he agreed that that would be fine. I would bring 430 euros to pay the program fee. I ended up paying 415 euros when I arrived because I recalculated the fee based on the exchange rate on my day of arrival.
I kept in touch with Tom sporadically until the week of my departure. There were no hiccups. I was nervous though until I actually arrived and saw a taxi driver holding up my name outside the Jose Martí airport in Havana. I couldn’t believe that I would really be able to legally go to Cuba for such a relatively low cost. So that brings me to…
- The cost. Obviously.
- Weekday activities are structured. There are indeed Spanish lessons every morning and dance in the afternoons. This is good because to be in Cuba legally, you’re required to be engaged in structured activities. This can also be a personal con though because the program does take up a lot of the day during the week. So if you’re wanting to just do an hour of nominal required activity a day and have the rest of the day to yourself, it won’t happen (unless you go AWOL, which I suppose is an option). My particular one-week program left room for free time on the weekends.
- Some of the Cuban staff that you’ll work with day to day in Cuba were great. That includes my Spanish teacher (Leandro, I adore him), my tour guides (Dayron and Napolis) and the cooking staff (I’m sorry I didn’t learn their names but you can see their photo below). I loved these people. They really made the trip worthwhile. The hosts in my casa (Maribel and Jose) were also awesome. They spoke no English so it gave me a great opportunity to practice Spanish. They were sweet and accommodating. I did not stay in the main casa, I only went there for meals. I heard that some participants may have had issues with the hostess in the main casa but I was not there.
- Despite there being a daily structure, there was still quite a bit of flexibility and free time. Salsa on Tuesday was BRUTAL so I didn’t want to do that every afternoon. So Wednesday and Friday afternoons, I opted to do the group cultural tours (Univ. of Habana, Vedado, Plaza del Revolucion, boxing gym, other random city sights). I only went back to salsa on Thursday afternoon. Our Spanish lessons (which were more private tutoring, less group class) were held in the library every morning except on Friday when we persuaded our instructor to let us have “class” at the beach. It was lovely.
- There is quite a bit of disorganization. Room assignment issues, miscommunications regarding meeting times, lack of accountability among the program managers with regard to disseminating consistent info to the participants, they forgot to arrange airport pick-up for one of the girls, stuff like that. I’m actually not too mad at that stuff though because you expect some of that in in a newer program. I’m not sure yet that they’re able to handle the sudden volume of participants they’re getting.
- My accommodations in particular left much to be desired. I stayed in the home of one of the program partners, in a casa particular (my hosts were lovely people). I was placed with another young lady I had just met in a room with no window, no TV (of course; It’s Cuba after all), and only a curtain separating the bedroom from the bathroom. This made for some potentially awkward situations. Upon arrival, I asked about being moved to a room with a window (there were none) or into a single room. When my roommate arrived, we discussed the options and as neither of us wanted to pay the extra $10/day for single rooms, we opted to stay together and just spend as much time as possible exploring the world beyond those four concrete walls. I was not placed in the main program house but from what I saw of the rooms in the main house, they weren’t much better. See photos below of the room.
- The program guide that Tom sent had a long list of requested donations, called donativos. I brought several items from the list (art supplies, feminine products, toiletries, school supplies). I also brought silverware which was special requested by Tom. The only items that I’m sure were donated were the art supplies (because I awkwardly handled them over to a man leading a small art class on the street) and one set of silverware (because I gave them to the hosts of my casa). Otherwise, as far as I know, the rest of my donations are still sitting on the floor at the main casa. Neither Tom nor the main casa hostess had any plan for my donations. There was no dedicated, established recipient for the donations or any formal channel by which to make the donations. Like I said, I ended up handing the art supplies over to a random guy on the street who was doing a youth art class while Tom stood by and took pics. It was strange. The man was gracious though. He gave me some crayon drawings from the kids.
- So now. I’ve been struggling with how to approach this next con. Because it’s a bit of a doozie. Disclaimer: there is no proof of what I’m about to say, only the personal account of some involved. There was an allegation, and a strong likelihood of truth, that one of the program managers engaged in extracurricular activities with one of the young (18 years old) female participants, after supplying her with an ample amount of alcohol. This program manager is also married with children at home. There. I said it. I don’t know how else to say that vaguely but honestly. That that may have happened is important because it speaks to the character of the people running this program. It didn’t seem to be the first time that something like that had happened either. I found out about it the last night I was there and it was troubling. It weighed so heavily on another participant that once she found out, she actually left the program 3 weeks early. So process that as you will.
I had a positive experience with Cuba. I would easily return to Cuba. Would I use this same program again? No. BUT, if all you want to do is be in Cuba legally, they are indeed a low-cost option. I’ve even heard that someone contacted the program, was honest that they only wanted to use the program as justification, and was able to work something out. Fair warning though, Tom was talking at lunch one day about how he doesn’t like when people who have enrolled to teach English only use the program for justification because then their heart isn’t in their teaching.
Or if you’re not bothered by any of the aforementioned needs improvements, proceed without reservation (but manage your expectations).
Either way, Cuba is a unique experience that I highly recommend to all. And soon, before too much of the atmosphere and city change. Cuba is not so much sights and sounds. Cuba is energy and feeling. You’ll understand once you go.
Additional questions? Comment below!