It’s difficult to really call everything here a scam. While some people are trying to straight up swindle you, most are simply offering a service or product in exchange for payment. The price might seem high considering you’re in Cuba, but keep in mind that the tourist industry is one of the few ways for Cubans to make any real money. Understanding the areas where you are more likely to be overcharged, or outright stolen from, can give you the power to decide when you want to pay for something or not.
Jineteros (hustlers) are all over the touristy areas of Cuba. You can identify them quite easily because they will try to engage you in conversation by asking where you are from or some other small talk. It won’t be long before they try to sell you on something.
When my mom and I travelled to Cuba together on a mother-daughter trip, we experienced most of the tricks listed here. Sometimes, this is just the cost of travel. You can’t be vigilant all of the time and a few dollars is not worth getting angry about, in my opinion. Stay alert, but if it happens to you, don’t let it ruin your trip.
Scams in Cuba to Watch Out For
CDs for Sale I wouldn’t really call this a scam, since you are getting something for your money, but 10CUC for a CD seemed like a high price tag for music of questionable quality. If they had been selling at 5CUC, or if I had more money, I probably would have bought a bunch of these just out of curiosity.
Friendly Guides Cubans are friendly, there’s no doubt about that. However, if you’re out sightseeing and someone offers to show you around, you can bet they will be asking for ‘donations’ at the end. Callejón de Hamel was where we experienced this the most. For a tiny alley, there sure were a lot of ‘guides’ hanging around (and selling CDs as well). Be firm if you don’t want their tour. If you accept, tip what you think is appropriate. Keep in mind, people are just trying to make a living and $5 means a lot more to them than it probably does to you. If you give, give with a good spirit and create some karma for yourself.
Commission Fees I highly recommend staying at a Casa Particular over a hotel. The food and service are both bound to be heaps better, and at a fraction of the cost. Keep in mind that anytime your host helps you out – calling a taxi or making a reservation at your next destination – there is a 5CUC surcharge to be paid, from your pocket, to the host. This isn’t advertised, but it is how the tourism industry works there. Oftentimes, this small commission fee will be worth the price of convenience. On the other hand, if you are on a tight budget or already have accommodations reserved, you can save a bit of money by organising things yourself.
Touts Because of the commission fee that is paid to anyone referring you to a casa or taxi, you will encounter touts/jineteros on the street offering to show you to some accommodation. A polite and firm ‘no’ is usually enough to send them away. Sometimes though, a person will follow you to your casa and their presence can be enough for that surcharge to get added to your bill.
Taxis Most taxis in Cuba are not metred. Always negotiate a price before setting out. In general, you shouldn’t be paying more than 10CUC to get from one end of Havana to the other. To travel short distances shouldn’t cost more than 5CUC. If you are using the taxi collectivos, the price is set at 10CUP (10CUP=0.50CUC). You don’t need to ask the price, just pay before you get out. The driver may try to double the price, but keep your confidence and pay the regular fare.
Cigars This is the one scam we didn’t fall for, but there were plenty of jineteros pushing it hard. People on the street, often in front of a cigar shop, will offer to sell you a box of cigars at a fraction of the cost the stores are selling them for. These are usually lower quality and less likely to be genuine than the ones you purchase from a store. They could even be nothing more than banana leaves. I have also read that you can’t take cigars out of the country that don’t have the official stamps on them. That being said, I also know someone who bought cigars this way and brought them home (I can’t speak to the quality of the cigars though).
Salsa Lessons This happened to a friend of mine one night when we went out dancing, and I got caught up in the drama. It was also the only time I felt concerned for my personal safety in Cuba. If someone offers to dance with you, go ahead and have a great time! What happened to my friend, and has happened to others, was that her dance partner taught her a few steps at one club and then invited her to go somewhere else to dance. This other place had no music or people at it. At the end of the evening, he insisted that she owed him for the ‘lesson’ because he had to pay the previous club for using their space. It was an obvious scam, but he wouldn’t let it go when she refused to pay. This man followed us down isolated streets at night demanding money. In the end, she gave him five bucks because our safety was becoming an issue. If you are dancing with someone, do not go anywhere else with them and you should be fine.
ATMs This is one scam in Cuba that is without a doubt simply stealing your money. My mom had $300USD taken out of her account after trying to withdraw money from an ATM. Your bank or credit card should have insurance to cover such theft, but it is a nuisance and it can be a while before you get your money back. Try to only use ATMs during bank hours in case something goes wrong. Make sure you check your statements when you get home to see if any unusual withdrawals appear.
Money Exchange Jineteros on the streets will offer you great exchange rates, but chances are you won’t get the money you were promised. It is a common scam to give someone Cuban Pesos (CUP) in place of Convertible Pesos (CUC). CUP are worth much, much less than CUC. Always check your change to ensure someone hasn’t tried to pull this one on you (it happened to my friend and he ended up out almost fifty dollars). Nobody wants is to get in trouble with the police. If you notice something is wrong, especially if there are other people around, don’t be shy about telling that person you are onto them. They will correct their ‘mistake’ and you will get your money back. Probably.
New Friends You may be approached by someone on the street who seems genuinely friendly. They don’t try to sell you anything and just want to talk. They invite you to a bar so you can talk more over drinks. You will be left with the bill, which may have extra charges on it as well. This is a difficult one to avoid when you want to make new connections, but this happened twice to a friend of mine during his five day stay in Havana (and there were other attempts on top of that).
Restaurants Check your bill before you pay. It is not unusual to find a drink or mysterious service fee added to the total. It only happened to us once, but we also didn’t eat out very often.
These are just the scams that I have some personal or second-hand experience with. Jineteros are a creative bunch, and there are many other tricks out there. Do some research so you know what to watch out for. Then, when it happens to you, you can avoid losing money. At the very least, you will get a laugh out of that time you paid ten dollars for a coffee in Cuba.
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