Is Cuba safe? One of the safest places to travel in the world, our local guide assured us. So safe that tourists are considered the ‘untouchables’.
So important is tourism to the Cuban economy that anyone who dares harm a tourist will face serious consequences.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Cuba is free from scams or locals trying to rip-off tourists.
Our homestay hosts in Havana both warned us about numerous pitfalls faced by unwary travellers.
Tourists are an easy target for Cubans who are relatively poor by first world standards. The monthly salary for a local Cuban is the equivalent of about $25USD which means the locals are always looking for ways to make a buck.
Here are some popular scams that you need to be on the alert for in Cuba:
Scam #1: This ain’t your Casa!
Before we even arrived in Havana, the owner of the casa we’d booked warned us about unscrupulous locals who might intercept us when we arrive at the casa. They’d tell us a story about how the casa is overbooked or has been closed due to unforeseen circumstances and try and lure us away to stay at their own casa.
Don’t be fooled. Make sure you knock on the door of the casa and wait till someone answers. Or, have the casa phone number handy and call directly. You’ll find the owner ready and waiting for your arrival.
Scam #2: Mothers asking for milk
Wandering through a local supermarket we were approached by a woman with a small child. She asked us for some money to buy milk for her child. Thankfully we were aware of this scam so kept walking.
It works like this. After approaching you, the woman will take you to the counter and get you to buy milk for 5 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos). Once you’ve gone she’ll hand the milk back to the shop and receive a small sum in return. Then she’ll try the same trick on the next unsuspecting tourist.
Scam #3: Where are you from? Where are you staying?
‘Where are you from?’ is the universal opening line in Havana. We were asked it hundreds of times. Some Cubans were trying to direct us into their restaurant, bar, art gallery, shop, whatever. Be wary.
One guy approached us on Calle Obispo just around the corner from the very busy and popular Hotel Parc Central. In excellent English he asked us where we were from, what we were doing in Cuba and said he recognised us from when we checked in late the night before. American, he asked? Staying at Parc Central?
We were having a very friendly chat but the more questions he asked I suddenly got a sixth sense that we were being scammed. I quickly looked around to see if someone was raiding my bag, my partner’s pockets. No, nothing.
Once he realised we weren’t staying around the corner, he lost interest. I eventually twigged that he must have been working in cahoots with someone at the Parc Central hotel – if he knew we were American, had checked in late the previous night, it would be possible to raid our room for any valuables while we were happily wandering around town.
Scam #4: The non-existent Cuban cigar festival
A local will wander up to you, ask where you’re from, when you arrived and tell you your timing is perfect, it’s the Cuban cigar festival! They’ll take you somewhere to buy dodgy, fake cigars, not the real Cuban deal.
Only buy Cuban cigars from state shops or direct from cigar factories. We found cigars at the factory we visited in Vinales cheaper than at the state-run outlet in Havana.
Scam #5: Changing money in the street
Don’t do it! Chances are you’ll get swindled out of your CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso) for the much less valuable CUP, Cuban peso. The CUC is worth about 25 times more than the CUP so you don’t want to get short changed by a ‘friendly’ local offering to get you a much better exchange rate for your money.
Admittedly the two-currencies in Cuba can be confusing. There are official CADECAS, Money Exchange Houses to change your money, however there are always long queues. The locals need to have both versions of the currency, CUCs and CUPs, so visit the same CADECAs as tourists to exchange cash.
The exchange rate is the same at CADECAS and banks so you don’t need to shop around.
You can also exchange money at some hotels and we found the exchange rate wasn’t too bad at the hotels we visited. You’ll get a better rate if you’re a guest than if you walk in off the street.
We travelled with Canadian dollars as there’s an extra 10 percent charge for changing USD. This may well change as more Americans travel to Cuba after the thawing in relations between the two countries.
Scam #6: Overpriced drinks in bars
Make sure you ask for the menu when ordering drinks in a bar. The menu will have fixed prices. Most larger or respectable bars and hotels will have a menu with set prices, often it’s the smaller bars that will take advantage of trusting tourists and charge whatever they want.
As I mentioned earlier, so many local Cubans will come up and try and chat to you. We felt quite harassed at times in Havana, as though everyone wanted a piece of us. We found that if we politely said ‘No gracias’ they generally wandered off and left us alone, however you need to be firm and keep moving.
Overall, Cuba is a very safe place for tourists, the locals are fun and friendly and the country has a wonderful upbeat vibe.