Is Cuba safe? The answer is simple – absolutely yes. Many people will shout on the streets:
“Viva la Revolution! Cuba libre! No mafia!”
However, even though no one is going to rob or attack you, travelling in Cuba is pretty much annoying because everyone will try to scam you. So it is better always to stay alert.
1. Check your coins
Cuba has double currency – Cuban pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC). The latter one is a currency for tourists. Maths is simple (or maybe not):
1 USD ~ 1 CUC
1 CUC ~ 25 CUP
The primary idea by the government was to give this strong currency for tourists to exchange with government owned tourism facilities. But, as it was possible to imagine, everyone started exchanging with everyone and the currencies got mixed. Even though legally tourists cannot have CUP, technically you need to use both currencies to get along.
Here comes the hard part. Do the math! Because a local person, more used to the conversion, will try to take advantage of this confusion. Secondly, carefully watch the coins that you receive as change. The CUP coins are worthless, however they look very similar to the CUC coins. The only way to distinguish them is sextagram corners that the CUC has. Almost in every place people will try give you some part of change in the worthless coins and apologise for their “absent-mindedness” if you return them.
With bills it is a lit bit easier. On them it is written clearly “Pesos Convertables”.
CUC – Valuable coins look like this:
CUP – Not valuable Cuban Pesos look like this:
Tip of the day: Double check the change!
2. New friends on the street
Meeting people is super nice, however you need to be really careful about making new friends in Cuba, especially on the streets. You might end up paying a lot of money. The plot is simple: a nice looking person or a couple starts talking with you, no usual pitching that you are already tired of, just nice people. Then they invite to the bar, so that you can talk more. Of course everything is pre-arranged with the bar owner and your new friend gets a percentage from your bill. Not the worst part. You keep talking, new friends keep ordering drinks for all, to celebrate the meeting. However, at the end you receive an enormous bill and you are the one to pay. Before coming to Cuba, I heard about this scam and was very careful. But during my visit 2 times people tried to scam me with this same scenario. So watch out!
Tip of the day: no one will buy you drinks in Cuba and probably no one will randomly want to meet you without expecting any benefit. Better to have that in mind.
Me and my “new friend”
3. Attention from girls
Attention from girls could also be a trap. Cuban girls are really beautiful, and they know how to dance and flirt. However, most of them see foreign men as an opportunity to benefit from. So if you are in Casa de musica (one of the most popular party places in Havana) and you have 5 girls around you, don’t get away by the illusion of your enormous attractiveness. Most likely, directly or indirectly, they will ask you for money.
Tip of the day: Be careful with girls, especially if they show interest in you.
Probably this lady is not the most dangerous one, but there are way more mind-blowing creatures out there. Don’t lose your mind 🙂
4. Let’s buy some cigars
Cuba is famous for its cigars worldwide, which are pretty expensive. By coming to Cuba, you might expect to get some cheap and good cigars that you could sell expensively outside the country. Cubans being aware of this demand created their own way of benefiting.
The best quality cigars are produced in the government owned factories, and sold very expensively in the official shops. However, the communistic system gives opportunity for workers to buy or steal the good cigars and sell them by themselves. At least that’s the story they tell you. Most likely, if you buy cigars on the street, it is going to be cheap and fake cigars. Furthermore, by leaving the country at the customs, you need to show documentation of your cigars (which you only get if you buy official boxes with special watermarks) to be able to take the cigars out of the country.
Tip of the day: Don’t believe in cheap and good cigars.
This old man does not sell cigars. He better sells his image 🙂
5. The chaos of the casa particular
Casa particular is an equivalent of B&B and it is runned by individual owners, in their private houses. It is NOT A SCAM per se. It is a good budget option of accommodation in Cuba and there is a lot of them – almost every house accepts guests. However there are some precautions to keep in mind.
First of all, when you are looking for accommodation, do not ask the locals if they know some good place to stay. Simply because they will bring you to their cousin, aunt, friend or neighbor’s casa particular and you end up paying more for a room, because the owner needs to pay commission for the person who brought you. You don’t really need help to find a place – there are plenty of them on every corner and they all are more or less the same quality.
Secondly, if you have a precise address of your accommodation, the locals asked for directions might lie to you that this address does not exist, or that the place is closed, or it has bad reputation or even walk you to the other place pretending that this is the place you were looking for. Better to trust the map and your own orientation abilities.
Finally, once you are in casa particular be careful and negotiate every offer. Owners most likely will like to sell you dinner and breakfast (that normally cost 3-6 CUC), offer you drinks. Carefully ask what is on the house, what you need to pay for and what are the prices before consuming. Because you might surprisingly end up paying more than you expected.
Owners will also try to sell you excursions, call a taxi for you, rent a bicycle, sell cigars, jewellery, worthless bills with Che Guevara. So be prepared for a lot of pitching. Also the truth is that most of the deals will be way more expensive if you buy them from a casa owner than directly, because the owner takes his commission.
Owners of Casa particulares waiting for tourist bus to arrive
6. Today is a festival!
Everyday in Cuba is a festival. Especially if you are a foreign tourist! On the streets many people will say to you:
“Only today is a festival of cigars!”
“It’s festival of salsa!”
“Today is a birthday celebration of main vocalist from Buenavista Social Club”
Don’t get on the hook. It is just another strategy to convince you buy something or bring you to their restaurant.
Tip of the day: Don’t believe in festivals (At least, while you are in Cuba)
In Cuban restaurant
7. Milk for babies
Cuban economy is really weak, and many people live in severe poverty. The government covers some of basic goods, such as milk, flour, rice. But it is not enough, and Cubans need to buy the rest on their own at a very high cost. Milk is a huge problem for pregnant women and women with young children. So you might see pregnant ladies begging for milk by the shops.
Sad story. But don’t get carried away by the images of poor kids. Of course, the problem is real, but Cubans know that children’s question always softens foreigners’ hearts. And many people, far from being pregnant or having children, will tell you fake sad stories about their niece, daughter, little brother and will ask you 5 or more dollars to buy milk. Use the common sense and don’t believe in every story.
If you are interested about food in Cuba, read my blog post: All truth about food in Cuba: How many beers you can buy for 0.04 USD?
Tip of the day: Don’t believe in every sad story.
Kids playing football in central Havana