Cuba has recently become an extremely popular tourist destination. Like is always the case when this happens there will always be people trying to take advantage of tourists that are looking to explore their country. In this article I have combined all of the most popular tourist travel scams that happen in Cuba, so that you can recognise them and easy steps on how to avoid them. The most common techniques to scam tourists include:
Six common Cuba tourist scams:
The cigar festival
Imagine you’re walking down the streets of Havana when a friendly local approaches you and tells you that the famous annual Cuban cigar festival is happening today. This very famous event that happens only once a year just so happens to be on today and you are lucky enough to have found out just in time. In case you didn’t pick up on it, that was sarcasm.
There is no such thing as cigar festivals in Cuba. You can only buy cigars in official shops or on the plantations in Viñales where they grow the tobacco and roll the cigars. There are a lot of unofficial shops and “cigar festivals” where they will try to sell you cigars of a much lower quality at just as high a price. So when someone approaches you saying the cigar festival is on today and they can take you to it, don’t believe them.
How to avoid it: It takes a while to get used to as everyone in the streets of Cuba seems to want to offer you a service. As you walk down the streets people will yell after you anything from “Taxi!” “Good restaurant here” “Horse-riding tour” and even “Cuban boyfriend” in the hope you will stop and give them some money. You need to learn to ignore them. The ideal scenario would be not even talking to them too much, just keep walking as they shout their offers behind your back. If however you get stuck into conversation politely decline and walk away as soon as you can.
The salsa festival
As you can imagine, this is similar to the cigar festival. There is no such thing as a salsa festival. Someone will approach you in the streets and tell you how lucky you are to have come across them because it just so happens that the annual salsa festival is on today and they can take you there. They will probably take you to a salsa school or dancing venue of some sort, where they either get commission for having taken you there or they will ask for money directly. Unlike the cigar festival however, where you then get sold low quality cigars at full price, here I suppose you do get the opportunity to learn a bit of salsa. It is still a scam and they will overprice it.
How to avoid it: Similarly to the cigar festival, when someone approaches you saying they can take you to the salsa festival, politely decline and walk away.
The teenage mom asking you to buy milk for her baby
This is a popular scam not only in Cuba but also in a lot of South East Asian countries. The scene will go something like this: a very young looking with a baby in her arms will approach you, and instead of begging for money she will simply ask that you buy milk for her baby. You feel sorry for her and since it’s just a carton of milk you go inside the closest supermarket and buy it for her. After you walk away feeling satisfied with yourself and your good actions, she actually goes into the shop and sells it back to the supermarket.
In Cuba the government provides milk to all families with children until they are nine years old. This is a terrible scam that is perpetuating child abuse in many parts of the world. Instead of being in school these little girls are out in the streets trying to get money off tourists, with the baby in their arms often drugged so that they don’t cry out.
How to avoid it: This is a bit of a heart breaking one to avoid, as you will effectively have to walk away from two young children in need. However the Cuban government provides milk to all children until the age of nine, so while they might be in need, milk is definitely not one of those things. By not participating in this scam you will feel a bit heartless, but on the long run this will actually be beneficial for them, since if all tourists stopped buying milk for these girls, eventually the would stop being forced to participate in the scam and be able to go to school and have a normal childhood.
The “friendly” local
We all know how friendly Latin people are, especially in Cuba. So when you’re wandering around the streets with your camera and map, clearly looking like a tourist and someone approaches you offering to help you out, why should you say no? Because chances are they’re just trying to get some money off you. By this I don’t mean they will try to pickpocket you or steal your bag, they will just walk you around for a while, showing you the main tourist attractions and then ask for a tip at the end of it. The places they take you to will also usually be their cousins shop or friends restaurant, so that they can all benefit from one nice tourist.
How to avoid it: I feel like I might be repeating myself here after a while but you get the gist of it; if someone approaches you, you ignore them. Politely decline whatever it is they’re offering you and walk away. They might call after you or follow you for a few steps, but once they realise you are not interested they will leave you alone and move on to the next tourist.
I don’t think the final two “scams” on my list should really classify as such, they are more things to be aware of while travelling in Cuba. In these circumstances someone is already providing you with a service and trying to get some extra cash out of it.
The unexpected cab fare
It will often happen where you’re walking around and someone calls at you from their official looking cab and offers to drive you there, under the heat of the Cuban sun you decide you don’t want to walk any longer so you jump in. Then when you get to destination you get quotes an outrageous price for a short 15-minute drive. This happens all the time, which is why you should never ever get in a taxi without having agreed on the fare before. There is room for bargaining as long as you do it before getting in the car. That, or ask them to run it by the meter.
The restaurant suggestion
This one ties back to the friendly local scam. Often when you’re taking a taxi somewhere or doing a tour the guide or driver will ask you if you have already tried any of the restaurants in town, regardless of your answer they will then proceed to describe an amazing restaurant that they know that you cannot miss. You agree to let them take you there and sure enough the food will be good, but not necessarily outstanding, and the final bill rather pricey. These people often get commission for bringing clients to the restaurants, so their recommendations aren’t really based on the quality of the food, rather on how much commission they will make. This makes it a bit hard to figure out who to trust when it comes to restaurant suggestion, but I would usually recommend to trust your AirBnb or “casa particulares” host, as they are keen to get a good review from you and don’t want to ruin their reputation with a bad restaurant recommendation.
Have you been to Cuba and experienced any of these popular scams first hand? Let me know in the comments below! These are only the scams that we have been warned about or personally experienced, if you came across more I’d love to hear your experiences. I also want to add that despite these small scams Cuba is actually a really safe place to visit. The criminality rate is extremely low and at no time during our trip I ever felt unsafe. It’s just a matter of learning to recognise these common tourist scams and learning how to avoid them.