Is Cuba safe? is one of the first things people ask us about Cuba. Yes, I think it is safe, but as with most places, people need to be aware of locals trying to wheedle a bit of money out of you. Here are 7 street scams to look out for we’ve experienced or heard of happening in Cuba.
For a country surrounded by controversy and reclusiveness, Cuba should be more dangerous than it really is. But with the friendliest capital city we’ve visited and some of the warmest people we’ve met travelling, Cuba is an hola nation where even its scam artists mean no real harm.
Things have changed a lot since 2014 and Obama’s reforms. Check out what the travel experts say about Cuba now.
The people here are incredibly friendly – to the point where the most dangerous thing you can do is stop walking for too long.
It’s dangerous – not because of crime or threats – but because someone will stop and talk to you. And then you’ll lose an hour of your holiday chatting to a local. It doesn’t matter if you speak Spanish or not. They’ll just chat away!
Walking through the streets of Havana, you’ll be approached by young guys full of smiles and friendly chit-chat (“Where are you from? Ah, Australia! Kangaroo!”) they’ll walk with you down the street offering to show you one of these three most common scams:
1. Buena Vista Social Club
It’s true, the Buena Vista Social Club is in Havana, and apparently one or two of the original musicians still play there occasionally, but is it any good?
After turning down a couple of touts, we went round the block to see what was going on.
Rather than the big musical extravaganza we were told it was, the Buena Vista Social Club turned out to be just another little bar with not much going on at the time. Perhaps it got a bit livelier later.
Update: For more information on what this scam’s all about, what you should be wary of and what to avoid, see Cara’s advice in the comments at the bottom of this post. Thank you, Cara!
2. Salsa festival
Salsa dancing really is a way of life in Cuba. The music is everywhere, and every single man, woman and child can salsa like a demon. But a festival? No, I doubt it.
Perhaps a dance party where you have to pay a cover at the door, or an impromptu salsa class in the street, but a festival? Very unlikely.
3. Tobacco festival
For tonight only, the great Tobacco Festival of Havana is going on just round the next corner. This in itself is amazing – the first day we’re here and it’s the only night of the year that this festival happens? What timing.
Even more amazing is that this once-a-year event is publicised by a different guy in a different part of town the following night.
4. Cigar scams
There’s no such thing as a cheap, proper Cuban cigar. This is because the industry is government-regulated.
If you’re looking to buy a good Cuban cigar, don’t expect them to be too cheap. The ones being sold on the street won’t be authentic or any good. There are government-sanctioned shops in towns selling proper Cuban cigars, which will be authentic but more expensive. It’s the way it goes.
They’ll be cheaper than you’ll find them back home, but they’re not as cheap as the ones you’ll find from people hawking on the streets.
I did buy some cigars from a tobacco farmer in Viñales. I watched him roll them, so I know they’re not from a proper factory, but they smoke beautifully.
They’re the cheapest and ugliest cigars I’ve ever bought.
If you want to know more about it, here’s our post on what to look for in a good cigar.
5. Baby-based scams
This is a classic scam but somehow this couple pulled it off in a friendly, believable way. And they didn’t look derelict as with most people who have tried this on me in other countries in the past.
We were approached by friendly looking local couple. The guy’s carrying a baby in his arms (“ooh, she is so heavy and strong”) and soon hands the baby over to his wife.
He asks where we’re from (“Ah, Australia! Kangaroo!”) and then comes out with “We were just at the beach and have lost our wallet. Can you spare some CUCs for a bus or a taxi?”
Sounds real enough, but then you hear them pull exactly the same lines with the next tourists – even down to how heavy the baby is.
Another scam where people involve their babies happened to friends of ours. A local with baby was asking for help to feed her infant – she as only asking for powdered milk.
She took them into the shop and grabbed a lot of powdered milk – so much so the bill came to $26.75!
They have a feeling the shop keeper was probably in on it too.
6. Don Lorenzo restaurant
We’re not sure if this was a real scam or not, but when we asked for a recommendation from our hosts in the casa we were staying in in Havana, the lady didn’t just tell us where to go, she escorted us there!
It’s a good restaurant and the food’s amazing, but it’s incredibly expensive and was completely empty apart from us. We thought it was a bit strange, but then a couple of other people told us they’d had the same experience.
Here’s our post on what food’s really like in Cuba outside expensive tourist traps like this one.
7. Check your change
Currently Cuba has two currencies: the CUC (a convertible peso aligned with the US dollar 1:1) and the Cuban peso (CUP), with a value of about 20 CUP to USD/CUC. The tourists use CUCs, the locals use the CUPs and you’ll see dual pricing.
When you buy something with your CUCs, make sure your change is in CUCs not CUPs. They look completely different so just keep your eye out.
This never happened to us and I’d say it’s not that common, but we have heard it go on.
As and when trade starts to happen between the USA and Cuba, the CUC will disappear and the CUP will be standard.
The lovely thing about these scamsters and touts is when you say no – or in our case, ‘thanks but we’re not going that way, we’re going this way’, there’s no problem.
There’s no hard sell, no is no and they wave cheerily and say goodbye. No problem.
And if you’re not sure if it’s a scam, follow the old adage ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’
On the other hand, it might just be amazing.
Have you ever been scammed whilst on holiday or travelling? What are your top tips for savvy travel? What do you say to would-be scam artists? Tell us in the comments!
Images by Mrs Romance using an OM-D EM1 Olympus camera.
**It’s important to realise that for the most part, the people of Cuba are very poor. In spite of the state-run health care, education and housing programmes, the people have very little money.
We were not in Cuba for poverty tourism and made sure that – as often as possible – our money went to local people and business.
The scams we’ve mentioned are examples of people desperate for money. They’re not bad people or criminals and we don’t hold any bad feelings towards them. At the same time, we feel a responsibility to share information we have about Cuba to help people have a better time in one of our favourite places in the world.**
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That’s actually not the Buena Vista Social Club that you were taken to. The actual Buena Vista Social Club is amazing and you need to book the day before to get in. We actually went and it was fantastic.
Though the day before, we met a couple on the street who told us about this bar on O’Reilly and Compostella that had singers from the Buena Vista Social Club. It was a complete scam. We were actually there just last week the end of March 2016.
What I figured out was a Cuban couple or a single person would introduce themselves to a tourist. Chat them up a bit and mention this great bar with Buena Vista Social Club singers and the best mojitos. They tell you the location, but then say they will take you there. The bar looks alright and there are lots of people. We ordered a drink each and chatted with the couple. We offered to pay for the drinks, and got the bill. For 8 mojitos (2 each) was 72 CUC. Ridiculous. Sadly, we assumed drinks would be cheaper since they have been everywhere else. And the server showed us this menu with the drink prices written in pencil. We did not have that cash on us so my boyfriend went to the bank. As I sat and observed in the bar, every table had a tourist couple and a Cuban couple. I noticed the same server giving the same talk about how drinks are expensive due to the singers.
I started to warn tourists coming in and the server got very angry at me. Luckily we couldn’t take out more cash, argued with her, and were able to leave.
Also since we went to the actual Buena Vista Social Club… drinks are much cheaper.
We did go back and get some photos. I was also able to warn a few other people that were going in with Cuban couples.
Do you know anyway I can post this warning so more people know?
Hi Cara. Yes, that makes sense. We’d heard the real Buena Vista Social Club was a lot better – and we did wonder if this was the real thing or just a funny scam. We certainly didn’t go in and refused to follow the Cubans who tried to take us to the bar. We just said we were going a different way and they left us alone. We did sneak a look in at what they were talking about though – just in case we were being over-cautious. Looks like our instincts were right.
Glad the real BVSC is still going strong. Would love to see how much things have changed since the short time ago we were there.
Thank you for your warning about the phoney club though. It’s not nice to be scammed – especially when drinks are that expensive and money’s such a tricky part of visiting Cuba. It was brave of you to get involved with trying to dissuade other tourists from going on. Could’ve been dangerous. Cuba’s a friendly enough place on the surface, but when it comes to cash bonanzas like a place selling mojitos at $36 a pair, you’re likely to come across some unsavoury characters.
I will edit this post to tell other readers to check out your comment. You might also like to go to Trip Advisor and leave the same comment on other Buena Vista Social Club reviews. Might help get the word out.
Good luck and thank you for the info.
Do not trust anyone with gold caps on their teeth in a country where the average monthly income is $15.
In Cuba it is important to NEVER TRUST PEOPLE WITH GOLD TEETH. In our experience they were always the scammers and criminals. They tried to get us to go to an empty restaurant and I knew something wasn’t right. I told my friend and she agreed with me that we should leave.
A young local will offer to take you on nice walking tour and then lead you to some Afro-Cubans that try scamming you out of your CUC pesos in exchange for their worthless CUP local money. DO NOT DO IT.
Don’t get “invited” to dinner where they will expect you to pay for everyone. Same thing goes for bars and drinks. Always ask the price before they serve you. Follow these rules and you’ll have an enjoyable trip!
Wow. Sounds like you had some interesting personal experiences in Cuba, Craig! Thanks for sharing.
Cheers – Jim
VERY IMPORTANT: If someone says it’s against their religion to be photographed, they are probably a criminal that is about to scam or rob you. Everyone loves having their photo taken in Cuba, except the scammers. This is something we realized on our first day there.
Actually Craig, I respectfully disagree. I literally just got back Monday night after two weeks there, half studying Spanish and half on a tour. Many people didn’t want their photos taken. I mean can you imagine people from all over the world coming to your country and taking photos of you as if you’re some rare species??? I can understand this having been an amateur photographer in college too where I took photos of street people esp. Street youth and had to consider their feelings. In Cuba, I took over 1300 photos, a bit trigger happy as it was my major in college but I did encounter a few that said they weren’t ok with it, either because it was not professional (police, security or pharmacy workers etc) or religious (all in white/Santaria). So it is feasible that some would not like this done or are just plain uncomfortable with it. Still there are enough others who do appreciate it. Just have to be polite and ask them as you’re doing it, and respect their response.
Ironically I don’t like having my picture taken 😛
As for other scams, gosh I was SO disappointed because I had no idea beforehand. I really didn’t think there would be so many people trying to woo you to this restaurant and that taxi etc. At many a turn when you think someone is being friendly there is an attempt at getting something monetarily from the encounter. Others not so but there were enough that it left a negative impression. From what I gathered talking with Cubans at length, tourism and customer service is still very new to them in general, they’re learning the ropes. For some reason they’ve gotten the idea that ripping off customers is par for the course. So until they learn otherwise it will probably continue.
In fact, the Cubans I spoke with said that right at the beginning of tourism @ 20 years ago, because Cubans had been kept in the dark a lot about the world and other people, they had been told not to trust outsiders, Esp. Americans. Can you blame them? So when the first tourists started coming, many were attacked, robbed and ripped off. It needed to be addressed and was by the gov’t. My friends said eventually people realized that these people, the tourists, we’re coming their on their own volition willing to spend money there so there was no need to rob them. Between the gov’t intervention and the realization, it mostly stopped. So this is a step in the evolution of learning tourism and customer service.
Hopefully one day all the scams stop and people see tourists for who they are, people from other countries passionately interested in Cuban people and culture and not potential money makers. Can you tell I’m idealistic? 😉
The worst scam for me was a man who I thought was a good friend of a new but honest vendor friend I had made, taking me to his ex’s apartment so I could see their baby after trying to show me where a party was that night, which it was legitimately. There I met his ex and her friend getting ready to go to that party. They were nice enough but I could tell there was a major effort to woo me while there. Braiding my hair, telling me I was pretty….it felt a bit much. I kept trying to get out of it but was too nice and they were getting quite aggressive, so I yielded out of self-preservation. By night’s end they insisted on walking me to use the Internet despite wanting them not to and saying I was ok and whatever else I could say. When they finally we’re going to leave they asked for refreshments or a few CUC’s because they had walked me despite me asking them not to. It wasn’t so much a bother about $3 CUC’s more than it was feeling used under the guise of friendship and interest in me as a person/foreigner. That’s what really rubs me the wrong way. The friend of the ex was the only one seemingly not in on the scam and genuinely interested in the world, having studied in France previously and a bit of a Francphile. Either way it didn’t feel good. But again they’re learning.
Other than that, Cuba was very safe. I could tell violence was a rare occurrence. Having grown up in SF during 70-90’s…I experienced a LOT of violence on the streets and in school. So this was a very nice change.
Hi D. First of all I just wanted to say thank you for leaving such an interesting and in-depth comment. Appreciate your effort. Secondly, I want you to know how jealous of you I am that you’ve just been to Cuba. We’d love to be back there.
Your insights into the locals’ impressions of tourists are very interesting and since you’ve explained it, quite understandable. Cubans have been forced to live in such a bubble for so long, the world has moved on without them and they’re just starting to catch up. I just hope that, in catching up, they don’t lose too much of what makes Cuba such an engrossing, beautiful country.
I must say I do agree that we never felt at risk in Cuba. There were a couple of moments where we felt a little uneasy – in some backstreets or late at night – but this was mostly because it was a new place and somewhere tourists probably didn’t go very often. That was why the locals were probably a bit surprised (and therefore a bit starey) at seeing us.
As far as taking photos goes, we found the majority of people were happy to have their picture taken. Like you say, asking first usually sorts things out. We just said “permisso?” to ask and they usually were fine. Some, like the gents with the chicken at the end of this post: https://mrandmrsromance.com/2015/01/the-best-way-to-see-cuba-cuban-adventures-small-group-tour.html asked for money before we took the pic. We were fine with that too – I mean it was a fascinating moment and so Cuban, we didn’t mind paying a couple of CUCs for the opportunity. The ones I didn’t like were the old men and women who walk around touristy areas of Havana with gigantic fake cigars asking for money for a photo. Just felt a bit icky.
And as far as the scam you were caught with, that’s the strangest one I’ve ever heard. All that effort and time from them for just a few CUCs.
Thanks again for your comment
My husband and I also experienced the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ scam a few years ago. Still makes me feel ill thinking about it! Exactly the same was about 70 dollars for 8 drinks. I thought I’d leave a warning review on the bar review page on Tripadvisor, but when we went back to look, the bar doesn’t even have a name! So it makes it difficult for a warning to spread about it. Such a shame about the scams in a country with so many friendly and honest people.
Hi Amy. It’s such a shame that there are scams like the Buena Vista still going on in Cuba. Like you say, the vast majority of Cubans are so lovely, it’s a shame that people’s views and experiences are coloured by the nefarious few. It’s so hard to tell whether it’s a scam or not when you’re somewhere as unique as Cuba, isn’t it? Hopefully our readers will see your comment and be aware of the scam when they’re in Havana!
Cheers – Jxx
My daughter and I just returned from Cuba. We loved almost all of our experiences. But on our last day we got scammed. While walking to the cigar factory a young woman fell in with us and we chatted. Her English was very good. She said it must be because she works at the hotel Ingletera. She advised us that the factory was closed for restoration. Every detail she said was plausible. She said her friend sells cigars from her apartment down the street. She said every Cuban is given two boxes of cigars per month and residents save and sell them to tourists. They were cohibo, Romeo and Juliette, and partages. With authentic looking boxes and seals. The story was so detailed and too good to be true but we got suckered. We paid 260. Cuc for 3 different boxes. They had seals and tax stickers. We believe we bought Cuban cigars but not the authentic brands. Our fault. Note to others:Just buy at legitimate stores. We are well traveled and felt pretty savvy prior. But the con was good!!! We also bought several “real” ones to compare. Upon smoking at home the spouses confirmed that the counterfeits were not bad but the quality was very evident in the real cigars. Just don’t fall for this! We feel dumb!
Hi Lucette. That’s a really complicated scam, isn’t it? I guess the counterfeit cigars were probably home-rolled. We were in Viñales in the west of Cuba and I bought some home-rolled cigars from a tobacco farmer. The cigars were good but not quite on a par with the real thing. I still liked them because of the memories they brought back and like I say they weren’t bad either.
Thanks for letting us know about this scam though. So interesting. I remember walking past the Partagas factory in Havana actually. Everyone kept telling us it was closed for renovations (this was a while back too) but we thought we’d go and have a look anyway. We were approached by a guy who showed us his employee badge from the factory and told us he would be able to show us round the factory if we wanted even though it was closed. So dodgy. We just made our excuses and walked on and he left us alone. That part of Havana gave me the creeps to be honest, but no one else bothered us.
It’s such an interesting country, isn’t it? Even the scammers don’t seem dangerous and are all so charming. Sorry you got scammed. Hope the cigars are still smokable.
Cheers for your comment – Jim
I’m an English woman living in Cuba for the last 3 years. Scammers are not popular in any culture. Enjoy your holiday and don’t become a victim! For an update on current scams see: https://www.facebook.com/CasaElDelfinCuba
Hey Susan. Hope you’re enjoying living in Cuba. Trinidad was one of our favourite parts of our visit to Cuba; you’re in a lovely spot. You’re absolutely right – no one likes a scammer or a con artist. Hope things are as safe in Cuba as when we were there 3 years ago. We’ve actually got a post on the current climate in Cuba here. Would love to hear your feedback on what’s being said. Cheers – Jim