The so-called “scams” in Cuba are invariably bush league when compared to many other destinations, especially in the developing world. You’re (usually) looking at losing a few bucks and a bit of pride, that’s all. No big deal. Crime is mostly the same but there are always exceptions of course, so don’t make the mistake of blindly jumping on the “Cuba Is So Safe” bandwagon to the point where you’re being stupid. Sadly, it’s NOT as safe as it used to be!
1. Violent Crime
Still (almost) unheard of - against tourists, that is. (Cuban to Cuban is a different story.) Like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of olden times the Cuban Police always, “get their man.” There are few places that can boast the almost 100% success rate for solving violent crime that the Cuban police do. Justice is swift and brutal. Result: So long as you’re not into under-age prostitution, drugs, etc. your chances of being shot, knifed, raped, car jacked, etc. are minuscule.
(That said, a close friend and an acquaintance of mine have been murdered Cuba. They were both being very stupid and put themselves in situations that anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would never consider. Their murders are a complete non-issue to the average, common sense traveller.)
2. Snatch & Grab
Unfortunately this is becoming more common in tourist areas. Never stroll around with your purse/knapsack casually slung over your shoulder. Never carry a camera in your hand without strapping it to your wrist. Many times the Snatch & Grab thieves work in pairs with one riding a bicycle, thus offering both thieves a quick getaway.
This is unfortunately now rampant in some areas and situations. If you’re being jostled in a tightly packed crowd in many places you will suffer pickpocket attempts. It’s inevitable.
Fortunately pick-pocketing (like money exchange) is one of the very few crimes that is 100% preventable. A pickpocket can’t magically teleport something from you. A pickpocket has to physically get their grubby, thieving hands on your belongings. Inside pockets, zippers, Velcro, buttons, etc. are some of the many measures that can help make pick-pocketing almost impossible. Be prepared, and this very common crime becomes a non-issue.
4. Other Thievery
Never leave your belongings unsecured. Sitting a purse down on a bench and looking away for a moment is asking for trouble. Minor crimes of opportunity are very common, so don’t give anyone the chance.
Most unique bit of thievery I witnessed: A purse stolen because it was left too close to a window – the thieves reached in through the security bars with a long stick, and silently spirited it away.
5. Money Exchange
This is by far the #1 scam in Cuba. Take a calculator with you so you know the exact amount of Convertible Pesos coming to you. If you don’t have a calculator (or cell phone, etc.) do not accept any transaction that doesn’t come with a printed receipt. No printed receipt invariably means that you’re being short-changed. Ripping off tourists during money exchange transactions is as common as sunburn now but it can easily be avoided with a few seconds of simple Grade 5 math and a few more seconds of carefully counting out your CUC in front of the teller. Like pick-pocketing this crime is 100% preventable.
6. Counterfeit Money
Counterfeit Convertible Pesos are fairly uncommon, but they are out there. To familiarize yourself with how the money looks, and the security features, have a look here…
i.) Convertible Pesos, CUC: http://www.cubacurrency.com/cuban_convertible_pesos_cuc.html
ii.) Cuban Pesos, CUP: http://www.cubacurrency.com/cuban_pesos_cup.html
7. Credit Cards
Never let your credit card out of sight and always keep your carbon copies. I had one monster cash advance taken out on my credit card and processed through Spain.
8. Restaurants and Bars
Never run a bar tab – always pay as you go. Keep a menu so you can compare the final bill against the real prices. In some places like Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in Havana it’s a given that your bill will always be padded.
9. Fake Menus
The Bar Neptuno down the street from my casa in Havana is a typical Cuban bar of very questionable repute. A beer or a mojito is 1 - 1.50 CUC.
A popular scam is to allow yourself to be talked into buying a new “fren” a drink, and after a couple of rounds you’ll discover a bar tab of 75 CUC. When you express outrage/dismay a “menu” is quickly produced by the bartender, showing a mojito going for 7.50 CUC. I’ve rescued several tourists from this bar who were completely overwhelmed by their new frens scamming the hell out of them. Always ask the price, before you buy!
If you’re not running the meter, always confirm the full price before you start the trip. The metered rate is the same as anywhere else – simply what the meter says and no more. Some taxi drivers will try and convince you the tariff rate, kilometre rate and the taxi rate has to be added together. Pretty funny, actually.
11. Customs Duty Coming Into Cuba
If you have too much luggage or you’re carrying something suspect (ALL luggage is X-Rayed upon arrival in Cuba) you might be red-flagged and hauled into Secondary Inspection.
Cuban Customs Regulations are quite simple and straightforward. If you’re trying to bring in something out of the ordinary (especially electronics) familiarize yourself with the regulations and refuse to pay any duty that is not correct. Waving a copy of the Regulations and not speaking Spanish is actually an advantage in these situations.
12. Overweight Baggage Charges Exiting Cuba
When you’re leaving home always check the exact weight of your checked luggage at the airport. When the Cuban check-in agent tries to tell you you’re overweight on your return leg, don’t put up with that crap. Canadians in particular are singled out for this scam because they’re too polite, complacent and easily bullied. Believe me, the Cuban check-in agents would never try to pull this stunt on a plane full of Italians!!!
Many people swear by the small, digital luggage scales that are available in travel shops. Sounds like a good idea to me for some travellers.
(I’ve seen weights taped to the back side of the scales at Varadero and when I made a big scene they all expressed horror at the deception, claiming the “other shift did it.” Very, very funny.)
13. Airport Exit Scams
On one occasion I saw a large group of UK travellers paying the 25 CUC Departure Tax with 25 Sterling - dozens of people in the group were doing this, all because a crooked official told them that GBPs were being accepted same as CUC, so people were happily handing over their Sterling with no clue.
I’ve also seen an inexperienced traveller paying 3 Departure Taxes all at once and the teller “lost” 15 CUC and demanded more payment. Obviously it was a dumb move to hand over the entire payment in one lump sum. The Departure Taxes should have been paid separately and the situation would never have happened.
The cigars you bought from your best friend bartender/guide/cleaning lady/taxi driver who has a father/brother/uncle working at the cigar factory are counterfeit. They were not taken from the factory, they are counterfeit. No matter how well you know your fren, they are counterfeit.
that’s not to say they’re bad cigars.
that’s not to say they weren’t a great deal.
that’s not to say you won’t enjoy a good smoke.
But quite simply, they are 100% fake. Accept this, get over it, and enjoy them!
There’s lots of other things, but really, they’re not important. Compared to many of its Central/South American neighbours (let along Asia and the Indian Subcontinent - watch out!) Cuba is no way/shape/form a corrupt destination (for a tourist, that is) and as mentioned at the beginning of this post the scams that a normal tourist will face are usually bush league and almost… naively innocent.
It all boils down to one simple thing… Cuba is NOT a difficult destination (as a matter of fact, it’s incredibly easy to travel there) but like anywhere in world - especially in a developing country - you always have to use COMMON SENSE and DO YOUR RESEARCH.