Cuban cigars are widely accepted as the best in the world. What makes them so admired is a mixture of fact and fiction. The mystique of the Cuban cigar has been cultivated by Cuba itself, in part through the most legendary faces of the island—Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. The reality is the tobacco plant is indigenous to the island and the climate and rich sandy loams of the Pinar del Río region are ideal for growing it. The first plantations arose in the 18th century and tobacco quickly became, after sugar, Cuba’s second most important crop.
Join Jennifer Spelman and Carlos Otero for a well-planned program to Cuba’s most scenic region. Our Tobacco Road trip explores Cuba’s western-most province and the dramatic beauty of the Viñales Valley. We travel back in time to a quieter and simpler Cuba where small, independent farmers work family plots and use ox-power to plow their fields. Leisurely traversing the lush countryside, we meet the generous Cuban people to discover the essence of their lives and culture with our curiosity and our cameras.
We arrive in Havana on Friday, March 11, departing by van in the afternoon to the verdant Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our comfortable casa particulars are located a few blocks from the village center of tranquil Viñales and feature large front patios with rocking chairs perfect for unwinding after a day exploring in the countryside.
Over the next four days, we slowly meander through the beautiful landscapes. Our travels take us off the tourist path, exploring authentic fincas to engage with the humble local farmers and their welcoming families. We make photographs as they harvest their delicate tobacco crop and ready the broad, flat leaves to be hauled off by slow-moving oxen for storage before the sorting and drying process. We visit the communities of Minas de Mahatambre—a small rural town remembered for traditional copper mining—and to the nearby idyllic coastal villages and meet Cubans from all walks of life.
We take a different route to travel slowly back to Havana, stopping along the way to meet Cubans in small towns and learn about their lives. Our last full day is a time to re-explore Havana and to visit some of your favorite people and neighborhoods, culminating that evening with a lively group dinner and an image presentation of the best photographs from our trip. We depart the next day and bid farewell to Cuba, until our next visit to this remarkable country.
This Cuba Unplugged program is open to amateur, advanced amateur and professional photographers who have traveled to Cuba with Santa Fe Workshops (SFW), with another group, or on their own. Enrollment is limited to six participants.
Participants should be technically self-sufficient, as this is not a program to learn how to use your gear or editing software. Participants should be in very good health with good stamina and mobility, as long days are spent exploring—this means walking, sometimes for two to three hours at a time, occasionally up steep stairs, steep hills, and along uneven terrain.
Jennifer Spelman is a documentary photographer and member of the Jibaro Photos Collective. She is co-publisher of CubaSeen, a quarterly magazine showcasing photography and writing about Cuba.
Jennifer received her photographic training as an assistant with Santa Fe Workshops, working with some of today’s most preeminent photographers: Jay Maisel, Norman Mauskopf, and Joe McNally.
A sensitive photographer of people, Jennifer strives to create portraits with energy and insight. She is most at home on the streets of Havana and has worked with Santa Fe Workshops across Cuba since 2011. Jennifer is a patient educator who has co- instructed with National Geographic Expeditions and taught workshops in Romania, India, Mexico, Japan, in addition to Cuba.
A popular workshop instructor, Jennifer is also part of our Mentorship Program »
Carlos Otero Blanco is a photographer who specializes in underwater photography. Despite the fact that Carlos left Cuba after finishing high school in Havana to study hydrogeologic science in a university institute of the city of Novocherkas, Russia, he recalls art was always his main interest. In fact, in the cruise ship that took him to the late Soviet Union, he was already shooting b/w film with a Zorki camera, one of the few available in Cuba in the 80’s. Carlos recalls that very soon after arriving to Russia, he was already doing extracurricular activities with the institute’s photographer and starting to learn the trade. So, back to Cuba with a university title, Carlos never really went into what he study abroad, but instead sold his old Moskvich soviet car and bought his first digital cameras. Since then, photography has been the main tool for his artistic drive, with a wide range of thematic interests that span from documentary photography, to portraiture, to conceptual art, and nature.
In documentary photography, Carlos is probably best known for his photographic study on Cuban bedrooms, with hundreds of these shot all over Cuba since 2009. This effort of years (still ongoing) has led to a specific book (“Dormir con…” [“To Sleep with…”], co-authored by Enrique Rottenberg), has been shown in several national and international exhibits, and in recently featured articles in the New York Times (Cuba’s Secret Bedrooms), other publications, and books on Cuban photography.
Carlos is also a deep lover of nature and adventure photography. He has done studies in subaquatic archeology, and holds several diving master and instructor international titles. In consequence, Carlos is a certified subaquatic photographer and video instructor, and has participated in apnea and diving productions, and has won prizes in three international subaquatic photography contests.