Scams in Cuba are common, annoying and pretty much inevitable.
You see, people in Cuba have had to smarten up. When they get an average salary of around $30, no matter their studies and titles and no matter how hard they work, some of them have found ingenious ways to make ends meet, and more often than not these are at the expenses of unaware tourists that have decided to visit their beautiful country.
One thing you need to know is that Cubans work in team. You may not notice it, but that is a fact. Whatever service you may need, if the person you are talking to doesn’t offer the service him/herself, he or she know someone who does and they will take you to him or her, so that they can get their commission. This is actually ok, and not a scam – it’s just how things work and it helps them make a few extra bucks.
Scams in Cuba are actually more elaborate and they are not like tourist scams in other countries (for scams in Europe, you may want to read this post). That’s why I thought I’d prepare you and inform you on all the ones you can expect when traveling around this otherwise fantastic country. Some of these scams happened to me, and I managed to avoid them. Others to travelers I have met.
13 Scams In Cuba And How To Avoid Them
This is one of the most common scams in Cuba, if not the main one actually.
Walk around any city in the country, and someone will be calling you, apparently to chat. The first question you will be asked is whether it is your first time in the country and if you have just arrived. Say yes, and a world of scams will open its doors for you.
Chances are you will be told it is the national day of “you name it” – most likely whatever item that person is selling – and soon enough you will be asked to buy something which is of no use to you.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Study an answer of sort to show that no, it is not your first time in Cuba – and that will cut the conversation short. Of course you need to prove a little bit of knowledge so give an accurate though short description of a place you have supposedly visited (and when). Feel free to browse around this site for inspiration!
If for whatever reason you forget to do that, just walk away after the usual niceties.
Cubans are supposed to be world famous for being very friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have met several people who have been invited over for a meal, coffee or what not by a Cuban family. Strangely, usually men, some of them hardly able to communicate in Spanish, but who somehow managed to become friends with the locals and were asked to stay for lunch.
The same never happened to me. I traveled to Cuba with my sister, and sure enough nobody offered us anything, and any time the world “invitation” was used, it was pretty obvious that the invitation implied some sort of payment.
This is how the scam works:
Say you end up at someone’s place during a day – for example for a salsa lesson. Soon enough a neighbor will show up asking if you’d like to stay for dinner. Why, yes! You say. Having a home-cooked meal with a local family, what a nice idea.
If you are lucky, you then get the next question – which will be a cue that you are about to fall for a typical Cuban scam. You will be asked what you’d like to eat. That’s kind of weird. I mean, I never ask my friends what they are planning to serve when they invite me for dinner. It’s not like I am going to a restaurant, right?
Yeah I know what you are thinking: that is not an actual invitation. And you have no idea how many people fall for it and end up having to pay extortionate prices for a meal, just so that they are able to leave and forget about it.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Just refuse the invitation, saying you have other commitments. Always. Even if you think it may be genuine, refuse. Just in case. Or else, be ready to be forced to pay.
The birthday girl / boy
Would you care to share it is your birthday to someone you have just randomly met? Well, personally I wouldn’t.
But many people in Cuba don’t mind doing that, apparently. Except this is one of the most common scams in Cuba.
You may be busy minding your business, sightseeing or whatever, and a local approaches you with a random excuse, starts a conversation and then casually drops the news that it is his or her birthday.
You will automatically feel compelled to give him your best wishes and think that will be it. But the conversation may continue and the whole point is to make you feel pity, to the point that in order to cheer this person up you will invite him to a bar, a restaurant or whatever – and obviously of his choice – to celebrate.
Now, I don’t know what the customs are in your country but in Italy when we celebrate our birthdays we are meant to pay our meal / drink and that of whoever we invite. Not the other way around. And something tells me this is the case in most of the world.
So I assume you got it.
Chances are the person talking to you isn’t actually celebrating his birthday, and use this just as an excuse to take you to his friends’s bar or restaurant where you will pay for his meal, most likely more than what it’d cost otherwise, so that his friend his making money, he is having a good meal, and he is getting a commission on top of it.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Say happy birthday, and walk away. Don’t be afraid to be rude.
My dad / husband / brother just died
This scam is very similar to the one I have just described above. Someone will approach you and, sad looking, will give you the news that a member of his family has passed away.
But isn’t it kind of weird that when someone close dies these persons are wandering out and about instead of being with their family, and try to talk to strangers?
The whole point is to may you feel pity to the point that you end up paying, by inviting them for a drink or a meal.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Give your condolences, and walk away.
The milk scam
This is one of the most popular scams in Cuba and I swear most people who travel there end up falling for it somehow. I haven’t, luckily!
Here’s how it works:
A jinetero (hustler) will approach you to start a conversation. Soon enough, he’ll tell you that his baby needs milk. I mean – a baby! You don’t want a baby to starve, right?! You will end up offering help, and soon enough you will be taken to the nearest shop where – what are the odds! – a bag full of cans of powdered milk is waiting to be collected. And you obviously have to pay for that – $20, and even $30 USD.
Well you can rest assured that the minute you part ways, that jinetero is walking back to the shop and he’s splitting the cash with the owner.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Just don’t feel pity! Say you are sorry, and walk away.
I am out of change
Of all the scams in Cuba, this is the one Italians may be likely to fall for. Shop owners here in Italy always seem to be short on change, to the point that they often have to leave the shop in search of smaller notes to be able to give you back what they owe you.
Now, the same happens in Cuba. Like. ALL. THE. TIME.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Tell the owner you are going somewhere else to get change and you can rest assured change will magically appear soon after.
I am not like other Cubans
If someone tells you those words, it’s a cue for you to run. This is one of the worst scams in Cuba. I mean, this is not a scam per se, but it inevitably leads to one. In fact, if someone tells you he is not like all other Cubans (meaning he is not trying to scam you), you should just assume he is worse!
It all starts with a nice conversation. Most likely this person has seen you looking at a map, perhaps a bit lost, and he comes to your help, with good information that you find useful and with clear answers to exactly what you are asking.
But. Yes – there is a but indeed!
Soon enough, he will offer a very good alternative to what you are looking for. Say you want to go to a restaurant that’s recommended on your guidebook? He can surely take you to one that is much better, where locals go (except you walk in and nobody is a local, because locals can’t afford to pay $30 for a meal). Is is a casa particular you are looking for? His friend has one just around the corner.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Refuse the offer to be walked to whatever place this person is offering to take you to. Chances are he will get angry and even bully you a bit, but just move on and if anything threaten to call the police.
That business has closed
Ah, I have yet to meet a person who didn’t hear these words when traveling around Cuba.
“Està cerrado” – closed or out of business.
These words are used in reference to a restaurant, but more often to a casa particular. It’s one of the most annoying scams in Cuba that is run by jineteros to grab some business and commissions. They will literally stand at the street corner close to the place you are looking for, and warn you that the owner has died a few days before, or use whatever other excuse so that you go to a place of their choosing.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: First of all, if you are planning to stay at a casa particular, call them before arriving – a day before or even on the same day. This way you will know whether they are open or not. Then, whether it is a restaurant or a casa particular you are looking for, simply don’t listen to what the jineteros are telling you and go check for yourself. Chances are that the business will be very much open.
The museum is closed today
Another one of the scams in Cuba that occurs to literally all tourists. Sure enough they tried it on me! It works much like the closed business one: you are looking for an attraction, and just as you are about to get there someone will warn you that it is closed and suggest you go to a nearby bar instead.
I guess you got it by now: the minute you walk inside that bar, they will make a commission.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Just ignore the warnings and go check for yourself. You will see that the museum is very much open!
The bus is full / not leaving today
Much like in the rest of the world, bus stations are the worst places for scams in Cuba. The most typical thing you will hear is that the bus is full or not leaving on that day, and of course there will be plenty of taxi drivers ready to take you to your chosen destination for about 10 times the price of a bus ride.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: First of all, always book buses in advance in Cuba. As you won’t really be able to do that online (and surely not once you are in Cuba), my recommendation is to go to the bus station a day or two before you want to leave and make a reservation. Also take a screenshot or notes of the bus departure times. Finally, once you are at the station just walk past the wall of taxi drivers inside the bus station to verify whether what they are saying is true. Chances are it isn’t!
The overpriced coffee
Of all the scams in Cuba, this is one you may find hard to recognize.
Say you walk into a bar or coffee shop. You order a coffee and they try to charge you an extortionate price for it. Outrageous! But then, a local comes in your help and offers you to pay the coffee for you, at a local price. He just wants a dollar in exchange. Oh well, that’s ok right?
Well chances are one thing will lead to the other and you may find yourself having company for your wanderings about town. Except at the end of it, you will be required to pay for services you never asked for to begin with.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Part ways as soon as possible. And if you fall for it, just refuse to pay.
The cigar scam
Cigars are among the best presents you can bring back from Cuba, and literally everyone sells them in the street. But more often than not, the ones you get off street vendors are not only bad quality, but they may also be a scam – where you open up the box of cigars you have just paid for and realize it’s just a bunch of leaves!
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: Don’t buy cigars in the streets – fake cigars for which no duty has been paid will be confiscated at customs anyways. Only buy cigars directly in shops or at cigar plantations.
The taxi scam
The taxi scam in Cuba is a bit more elaborate than the classic (raising the prices, taking a longer route if running on a meter and the like).
In short, this is how it goes.
You book a taxi to take you around for a day or so, asking the driver to take you to a certain number of places. He picks you up in the morning, and off you go for your day out. Of course you don’t know the way to the destination, so you are completely unaware that a scam is unfolding. Soon enough, you will find that the driver has taken you to a place where you had not requested to go – and he’ll insist that the place you wanted to visit is closed for the day, or that the road is blocked etc. Of course, he completely omitted to warn you when he picked you up!
Falling for this scam is inevitable, it’s happened to a bunch of people I know and the experience turned sour. If it happens to you, be ready for a good argument.
HOW TO AVOID THIS SCAM: You can’t, really. And if and when it happens, you should refuse to pay the amount you are requested. Just give a fee you think is fair, especially considering you were not taken to the places you had requested.
Further Considerations And Tips
Of course, knowing what to expect makes everything easier and will give you the possibility to react in a prompt manner. But if you ask me, speaking the language is definitely one of the best ways to keep scams in Cuba at bay.
I have a dedicated post on tips on how to learn a language (you can read it here). But I also recommend taking a phrase book with you, or a pocket dictionary. Remember that internet in Cuba isn’t a thing really, so you may need a good old paper version.
Here are a few grammar books and phrase books that may help:
- Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar, Premium Third Edition
- Easy Spanish Step-By-Step
- Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary
One thing that I’d like to make clear is that – despite the scams, which by the way can happen anywhere, Cuba is a great country and along with the people who will try to exploit the situation, you will meet others that will be nothing but nice – like the guy who carried my suitcase along the streets of Baracoa; or the owner of the casa particular where I stayed in Vinales, who stood by me when I argued with the taxi driver to protect me.
What’s important in order to avoid scams in Cuba to know what to expect, so that you know to react. And I hope this post helps you with that!
For more information about Cuba, make sure to read my posts:
- A Great Guide To The Things To Do In Havana
- The Most Fantastic Things To In Do Cuba: The Ultimate Guide
- How To Get The Visa For Cuba In 8 Easy Steps (Also For Americans)
- The 32 Best Beaches In Cuba
- Trinidad Cuba: The Most Complete Guide
- The 7 Best Places To Go Hiking in Cuba
- The Most Delicious Cuban Food: 35 Mouthwatering Cuban Dishes
- 10 Fabulous Day Trips From Havana
- A Great Guide To Viñales, Cuba
- A Great Guide To Baracoa Cuba
- A Great Guide To Cienfuegos Cuba
- A Short Guide To Camaguey Cuba