America,  Cuba,  During the World Tour,  TDM,  Tips

The 14 most popular scams in Cuba

Cuba is among the top 5 of our favorite countries around the world. However, with the economic difficulties linked to the American embargo, the locals see tourists as a gold mine. In all the countries we went to, we paid the “tourist price” willingly. But where we usually pay 1.5, 2 or 3 times more, it isn’t uncommon in Cuba to pay 10 or 20 times more than the local rate. Even for “rich Europeans”, this quickly represents substantial amounts. Fortunately, Cuba has other charms to compensate for the inconveniences

Here I will list the most popular “scams” in Cuba (some of them aren’t really “scams” but things to watch out for). We were “victims” of about half of them during our stay in Cuba in April 2017, because unfortunately, some of them are unavoidable. We are walking ATMs!

  1. Cuba has two currencies: CUC (convertible) and CUP (moneda nacional). 1 CUC is worth 1$ so a little less than 1€, and 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The circulation of these two currencies is at the origin of many scams targeting naive tourists who aren’t used to coins and banknotes. If you come home late in a cab for example, the driver can take advantage of the darkness to give you change in CUP instead of CUC (25 times less than what he owes you). Take a good look at the bills, CUC bills have the inscription “convertible” on them. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to distinguish coins.
  2. There are local/tourist rates. Always ask for the price, for everything. You may see a local handing out a 20 CUP (moneda nacional) ticket (0.75€ for a pizza), but since it’s you, the seller will ask you for 2.5 CUC (2.5€). The worst of it all is that even when the price is clearly displayed in UPC, the seller will have no problem looking you straight in the eye and giving you a price 10 times more. This type of scam usually doesn’t exceed 3€. There’s nothing to be done, it’s up to you to decide whether you want your pizza or not.
  3. The fare negotiated with the cab isn’t final. Official or unofficial cabs never have meters. So after negotiating the fare, the driver can still find something to negotiate, while the car is just starting to roll with the tourists inside: “I drop you at the entrance of the city eh, in front of the casa it’s 5CUC more”, “if I’m not mistaken, your casa is at the southern end of the city, it’s 5CUC more”. In this case, be firm and remind him of the negotiated rate. Don’t give him a single cent more. Know that you are already paying 10 times more than a local, it isn’t normal that he negotiates 5CUC more.
  4. Most of the time, the colectivo (shared cab) linking the major cities is reliable. The negotiated fare will be respected. But there is an exception concerning the route Vinales -> Cienfuegos or Vianales -> Trinidad. This cab goes through Havana. When it arrives near Havana, it will stop in the middle of nowhere and point another cab to Cienfuegos/Trinidad and give you an exorbitant fare (like 150€ for two) – even though you have already paid the full amount to the first cab. So, never pay for colectivo cabs from the beginning, pay 50% at worst by asking “the car is going to drop me off at the casa in Cienfuegos?” “the fare is for two with luggage? etc.” etc
    As soon as you get out of the Viazul bus, about ten people surround you: cab, casa owners… but are they really casa owners or just paid drivers to take you to a casa? Some of them even kindly offer to take you on foot to the casa you have booked, to finally leave you in another place, where they get a commission -> don’t follow anyone to the Viazul terminal.
  5. Never follow someone who tells you they know a very good restaurant. You may end up in a restaurant at 17€ per dish.
  6. Do not buy cigars on the street. You will be happy to get a good deal but you will ALWAYS find yourself with fake cigars, usually with banana leaves instead of tobacco leaves..
  7. In front of the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas there are jiniteros (professional Cuban tobacco hustlers and scammers). When we went there around 5:00 pm, one of them immediately called us and said “it’s closed but if you want to buy cigars it’s this way”. Lonely Planet tells me that it’s open until 7pm so I push the door anyway to realize that the store is always open. Don’t be fooled by the flappers! There is a place marked “Cigaros Black Market” just behind La Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, but you might buy damaged cigars at best, at worst the other way around. Be careful because the customs can bother you with that! (by asking you for an invoice and the authentication number on the cigar boxes)
  8. Don’t change money in the street, you’ll end up with counterfeit bills, or with moneda nacional instead of convertibles, or 25 times less money
  9. The casas will always ask you in a natural way: “What time would you like breakfast? “as if it was included in the price. Breakfast is NEVER included in the casas’ rate (nor dinner). Always ask for the price (which is usually 5CUC/person).
  10. The casas will also ask you the question “what do you want to drink” at dinner, as if a drink was included in the dinner rate. Dinner at the casa NEVER includes a drink. You always have to ask for the price (it’s a pain in this country, you have to be in “alert mode! I’m being scammed” all the time :D)
  11. Someone is typing the chat with you, he speaks English (or not) and seems to be too nice for it to be natural. Soon, he will offer to buy you cigars/cannabis, ask you for money, recommend a restaurant, a concert, offer you a cab etc. This isn’t the case with everyone who approaches you, so be open to discussion anyway, but be prepared to be disappointed most of the time.
  12. The restaurant bill is presented to you. With 10% falling from the sky (service charge apparently). It’s an imposed tip, but all tourists add 10% tip anyway. The French will be offended, but get used to it! In the same way, always check the bill: prices may be slightly different from the menu, or the list of dishes ordered has nothing to do with what you have on the table. Also check the change you get back, that it is indeed convertible and that nothing is missing.
  13. A lot of things are paid in Cuba for tourists, even peeing! In front of the toilets (restaurants, bars, bus terminals, …), you will always find a small box of “tips”. Nothing abnormal so far. On the other hand, you will always have the cleaning lady in front of you, who is always looking at you and putting pressure on you. Is the tip box compulsory? No idea but no price is indicated (in general I give 1 to 5 CUP – moneda nacional that is 0,04€ to 0,20€). So, if you don’t have a moneda nacional or small coins, it will cost you at least 1€ (and they will always pretend not to have any change). In that case, tell them “lo siento, no tengo cambio”, hope it will pass and take out your own PQ.

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