Photo taken by Caroline Hoff

The blue skies and green mountains created the perfect juxtaposition for what Caroline Hoff felt on the inside. Given her fear of horses and lack of the Spanish language, she never pictured herself riding horseback through Viñales, Cuba.

Hoff studied in Cuba for 10 days with other students from the University of South Carolina. Given her introverted personality and the fact that she did not know anyone going on the trip, she knew this was out of her comfort zone.

The weather throughout the week featured intermittent thunderstorms, but that did not stop the group from enjoying every moment. After the daily thunderstorm, another student, coincidentally also named Caroline, convinced her to go on a horseback tour through the valley.

Hoff knew this would be difficult, but also knew she could not miss this opportunity. After countless affirmations and one mojito, she got on the horse and started to ride. She lasted for about 15 minutes before panic ensued.

Horses are majestic, but unpredictable animals. With a Spanish-speaking cowboy riding with them, the girls could not explain to him that they needed to go slow, instead he kept whipping the horses which made them go faster.

After a few minutes of bargaining and trying to translate, Hoff quite literally got back on the horse and continued the ride. Although still uneasy, she started to feel more comfortable as she made her way through the valley.

The green grass and the cascading mountains surrounding her started to make the ride worthwhile. The storm passed and now the sky was a bright blue, with the sun shining onto her back.

About halfway up the mountain she stopped at a tobacco plantation where an elderly man greeted her. He began to show her pictures of his family and some of his possessions— baseball cards and a hat with an American flag and Cuban flag pin. He got the pin when former President Obama opened relations up with Cuba. He said, “You need to tell your country about us. Tell them about our generous people and what we have to offer.” This conversation made Hoff think about the reason she went to Cuba in the first place.

A main reason people go abroad is for the experience, which is important. There is, however, something more important to understand about visiting different countries, and that is the culture.

Americans know very little about the Cuban way of life. Hoff considers herself lucky because she got out of her comfort zone in more ways than one and experienced a culture that is misunderstood by so many. If she had not ridden the horse, she would have missed out on one of the most beautiful views she has ever seen and a conversation that helped change her outlook on Cuba.

Hoff remains inspired by the Cuban natives and shares her experiences and newfound knowledge of the culture every day. She is forever grateful to the Cuban people and their beautiful country.