When participating in international tourism, you may be warned about common scams that tourists are exposed to. Before visiting Cuba, I had never been scammed, and while I was only there for only three days, I was conned twice. If you’re planning a trip to this gorgeous island, make sure you’re educated on what could happen, and prepared for any Cuban scams that may occur. Here are a few Cuba travel tips and keep reading until the end to hear about the worst con I experienced on my trip!
The first common tourist scam I encountered happened mere minutes after leaving my casa particulars (Cuba’s version of a bed and breakfast). I ate at a beautiful restaurant, with a live quartet and refreshing mojito. When the bill came, though, there was an extra 10 CUC added at the end. I asked the waiter, “What is this charge for?” She answered curtly, “Tourist charge. You are a tourist,” and walked away. I had no choice but to pay the extra 10 CUC. How can you avoid this? Try not to eat at restaurants solely populated by obvious tourists or near any large tourist sites. Also, stay away from restaurants that have employed Cubans to flag you down off the street, as they are trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant. Authentic Cuban cuisine is delicious and a huge part of their culture. It’s worth it to wander a little off the beaten path to find the best places to eat in Cuba. Thankfully, that was the only place I experienced the pricy addition.
As you explore Havana, you’ll hear live music everywhere you go. From solo guitar players in gardens to full bands on the side of the road, the beautiful melodies will be the soundtrack of your vacation. I loved turning a corner and hearing original music, or consuming the beauty of Plaza Vieja while hearing popular jazz tunes behind me. On my first day, I stopped in a small square to listen to a man sing and strum his guitar. After a few songs full of smiles, he approached me. Although I do not speak Spanish, I could tell he was asking for money in exchange for his music. I told him I only had large bills, and when he realized I was not going to give him anything, he angrily stalked away. If I were to relive this situation, I wouldn’t make it so clear that I was listening to his music. Enjoy the soundtrack of Havana, but don’t be persuaded to pay for it.
Play With Us!
Another scam related to music is an invitation to take part in a street performance. As I was walking along the Malecon, I came across a group of men playing music. The instruments included a guitar, bongos, and a tambourine. They surrounded me, thrusting the instruments in my hands and asking me to play with them. By this time, I knew it would result in them asking for money, so I forcibly declined and was on my way. To avoid this common scam, make sure you put enough distance between yourself and street musicians. If you’re approached, just say a strong no and walk away. The Malecon is definitely a spot that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Cuba.
A common tourist con that is easily avoided is being overcharged to ride in an old-fashioned vehicle. The price we were quoted for an hour tour of Havana in the car was 60 CUC. Some tourists may be willing to pay this. The cars are gorgeous after all, and it’s an easy way to see most of Havana in style. I tried to bargain but to no avail, so for me taking pictures next to the cars sufficed. If a ride in the beautiful vehicles is high on your bucket list, build the cost into your budget beforehand.
Cigars and Rum
Another tourist scam that many are familiar with is the abundance of fake Cuban cigars and Cuban rum around Havana. While verifying whether or not these products are authentic can be challenging, look for official stickers and labels. If you are not sure, hold off on purchasing the items until you get back to the Cuban airport. Their duty free shop is filled with rum, cigars, keychains, and any other souvenirs you may want to bring back home.
Finally, the last con is the one I fell victim to on my first night in Havana and probably the trickiest to navigate. I was heading towards 304 O’Reilly, a famous restaurant in Old Havana that is highly recommended by everyone who has the opportunity to visit. As I’m walking down a side street, a friendly local approaches me. He asks me where I’m headed and I tell him to 304. He proceeds to explain that this particular restaurant is a tourist trap, with overpriced food and watery drinks. He says, “I can take you to an authentic Cuban bar, with no tourists and great mojitos!” I almost politely declined, but I knew I was in Cuba to experience the culture and meet the locals, so foolishly I followed him. The bar we arrived at was only a few blocks away, and like he said it was filled with locals. Immediately, the bartender put two Cuban Libres in front of us. Before I knew it, the man had downed both of them, and I could tell he was drunk.
As I tried to leave, I was surrounded by the other men in the bar, and I realized they all knew each other. I declared that because I hadn’t had a drink that I would be leaving. One of the men said, “No, you tourists will pay for a Cuban’s drink. That is the way here.” Although the total amount for the drinks was only 10 CUC, I was frustrated, mortified, and a little scared that I had so easily allowed myself to be put into such an unsafe situation. If you find yourself being persuaded by a local to visit a specific spot, make sure to trust your gut and don’t be afraid to politely decline! Locals can be amazing, friendly, and kind, and your instincts should be able to let you know if you’re talking to an honest person. As you’re traveling, keep your heart open, but also keep yourself aware.
Avoiding scams is really essential while navigating a new country. You don’t want your experience to be tarnished by the loss of money or trust. You also don’t want to avoid travel because you’re scared of scams - if you did, you’d never go anywhere! Cuba is an incredible nation with so much history and beauty to offer to tourists, so don’t be discouraged by potential scams! Trust your instincts, keep your money close, and understand that every day traveling is a learning experience. Have you ever been conned while traveling?
X, Grace Poulos, @chasinggracee