During my recent visit to Cuba (November, 2018) I came across quite a few scam artists and wanted to write about what to look out for and how to avoid being ripped off whilst on the island.
I just have to start off by saying that Cuba is a wonderful country, it has a natural charm and the people are some of the friendliest I've come across. Like anywhere in the world, people will see an opportunity to swindle tourists and some just pull it off better than others.
Some of these tricks are all around the world and not necessarily unique to Cuba, however these are the most common ones I came across...
Cuban Cigar Scam
Cuba is world famous for selling cigars and it is no surprise that local people will try and sell some to you. Cigar smoking is part of the Cuban culture. However these scam artists will weave a story in order for you to buy them and quite often they will sell them very cheaply.
You may hear that Castro's government allows them to sell these cigars from their home or that they had magically acquired a box of cigars.
The scam: Selling stolen or fake cigars to tourists.
Quite often the cigars are made up of banana leaves with no tobacco or they are either stolen from the factory or from scraps of tobacco.
The truth:The cigar industry in Cuba is government owed and carefully regulated. If someone is selling you bargain basement cigars then you know something is up, politely decline and head to the authorised stores or plantations throughout Cuba.
Internet Card Scam
To access wifi in Cuba you have to purchase an internet card and it can become costly. Regardless of what company you purchase your card from all of the internet is regulated by the Cuban government.
The scam: People will sell you these internet cards in local parks or squares (where there is wifi) and overcharge you. In some cases the cards are are already used up and have little internet credit left on them. They may convince you to buy the card from them because they can speak English and claim that the ETECSA staff can only speak Spanish.
The truth: Purchase your internet card from an ETECSA telecommunications store. You will spot these shops as usually there is a large crowd of people outside.
These centres are found all over Havana and in other larges towns in Cuba. Some larger hotels will also have a place to purchase the card. When you are paying for the card please bring your passport along for identification.
The card costs 5 CUC/$5 for 5 hours of internet or $40 for 4GB of internet (2019 prices).
I have included a list here of all of the country location hotspots.
"No small change" scam
"Lo siento, no cambio"
A person claims not to have change for larger notes for tourists.
The ploy is that they will only have local currency (CUP) and have no Convertible Peso currency (CUC is what tourists use).
The scam: The tourists feel they are only in a position to overpay for their goods or service. Quite often you will pay in CUC and receive change sneakily back in CUP - always check your change. The notes are different so it is a good idea to get used to what they look like.
The truth: This is quite a common scam that is easy to conduct . In some cases it is unavoidable but try and take some smaller notes with you. CUC cash has more value than CUP pesos. For more information on the currency situation in Cuba click here
Baby milk scam
I came across this scam a lot in Havana. The hustler, usually a woman will plead with you to buy some milk for their baby. Conveniently they are standing outside a store that sells said milk. The milk they want purchased is pre-packaged and because you feel sorry for them you agree to buy the milk.
The scam: When the milk is purchased - quite often it can cost as much as $20 - the hustler will return with the milk to the shop keeper and they will split their earnings. The shop keeper can resell the milk and the whole process starts again.
The truth: The Cuban government provides milk to all families with children under the age of 9 years old. The best thing to do is to walk away from the situation. Tourists need to be more aware of this scam as ultimately the young mothers are young girls that are being forced onto the streets to make money and in some extreme cases the young baby has been drugged in order to stay quiet.
When you are asking for your bill in a restaurant always check the tax rates and percentages and see if any little "extras" have been added on.
Quite often the friendly local that suggested you go to this particular restaurant is receiving a kick back in commission and in order to make up his wage they need to inflate the food and drink prices for tourists.
The scam: Restaurants will adjust the tab and generally there is a 10% local tax added on. However the local tax portion of the bill may be higher and inflate your total cost of the bill.
The truth: If you are ordering many drinks the best thing to do is to pay after each round and don't accumulate a large tab. If you feel something is wrong on your bill then it probably is and you should query it. Some people will feel embarrassed they have been caught out and fix the bill right away.
The buses are fully booked scam
If you are staying in a local hotel or Casa Particular your host may claim that the local bus you intended in taking is fully booked or is not running on your intended travel day.
The scam: The hotel owner will reluctant to share bus timetables or information of the frequency of the buses because they will want to entice you into extending your stay. Or in some cases they will have a set up with a "taxi collectivo" -shared taxi. The taxi journey will be much more expensive that the buses and you feel that this is your only option out of town.
The truth: In some cases buses are few and far between but there will be transport links between the major towns. Invest in a recent guidebook and ensure you have done your research. Also it is worth downloading the bus times from Viazul (Cuba's bus company) before you head off.
I take your picture?
To be fair to Cuba this scam happens all around the world but we experienced this one in Havana too. Inside the Havana Fort the tour guide inside working offered to take our picture. We obliged and she took several photos from all different angles and poses. Before we received our camera back she demanded money for her service.
Because it was our first full day in Cuba we handed over a small note and we were left with a bad taste in our mouth. Since this scam was on our first day we felt we were set up to avoid this in the future and since then we have declined any offers from budding photographers.
I hope that these scams have not put you off visiting Cuba, I just want to make people more aware and know what to look out for. I'll be sharing more Cuban guides over the next few weeks.