Although things are (unfortunately) rapidly changing for the worse, Cuba is still one of the safest developing countries on the planet for tourists.
Violent crime against foreigners is (almost) unheard of, and the so-called “scams” in Cuba are invariably bush league when compared to other destinations in the developing world.
You’re (usually) looking at losing a few bucks, and a bit of pride, that’s all. No big deal. (There's always exceptions, of course, so don't make the mistake of blindly jumping on the "Cuba Is So Safe" bandwagon to the point where you're being stupid. Sadly, it's NOT as safe as it used to be!)
Please don’t take this thread as a slam against Cuba. IT'S NOT!! I’m simply pointing out a few issues that all tourists should be aware of, and a few scams that with a little common sense become complete non-issues for a prepared traveler.
1.) Violent Crime : Still (almost) unheard of - against tourists, that is. (Cuban to Cuban is a different story.) Like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of olden times, the Cuban Police always “get their man.” I doubt there’s any place that can boast the almost 100% success rate for solving violent crime that the Cuban police do. Justice is swift and brutal. Result: Your chances of being shot, knifed, raped, car jacked, etc. are minuscule.
(That said, I’ve had one very good friend and one mutual acquaintance - both foreigners - murdered in Cuba. They were both being very stupid, and put themselves in situations that anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would never consider. Their murders are a complete non-issue to the average, smart traveler.)
Gangs are non-existent in Cuba because they’re clearly anti-revolutionary, and would be squashed immediately. It took years for hip-hop or metal heads to be allowed to run around dressed in their respective fashions because it was viewed as being too close to “gang” oriented.
2.) Snatch & Grab : Unfortunately this is becoming more common in tourist areas. Never stroll around with your purse/knapsack casually slung over your shoulder. Never carry a camera in your hand without strapping it to your wrist. Many times the Snatch & Grab thieves work in pairs, with one riding a bicycle, thus offering both thieves a quick getaway.
3.) Pickpockets : This is unfortunately now rampant in some areas. If you’re being jostled in a crowd situation in Havana or Santiago you will suffer pickpocket attempts. It’s inevitable.
I don’t have much sympathy for the victims though, because pickpocketing is one of the very few crimes that is 100% preventable. A pickpocket can’t magically teleport something from you. A pickpocket has to physically get their hands on your belongings. Inside pockets, properly secured, and measures like money belts, etc. make pickpocketing almost impossible. Be prepared, and this very common crime becomes a non-issue.
(CSI Miami the crime show is one of the most popular television programs in Cuba. When I take a Cuban bus knowing full well that I’ll have a pickpocket attempt sometimes I’ll put a 1 Cuban Peso note in my back pocket, and write on it, “We now have your fingerprints and DNA. Please turn yourself in to the nearest police station.” One kid actually screamed, and begged me to take back the bill.)
4.) Other Thievery : Never leave your belongings unsecured. Sitting a purse down on a bench and looking away for a moment is asking for trouble. Minor crimes of opportunity are very common, so don’t give anyone the chance.
Most unique bit of thievery I witnessed: A purse stolen because it was left too close to a window the thieves reached in through the security bars with a long stick, and silently spirited it away.
5.) Money Exchange : Take a calculator with you so you know the exact amount of Convertible Pesos coming to you. If you don’t have a calculator, do NOT accept any transaction that doesn’t come with a printed receipt. No printed receipt invariably means that you’re being short-changed. Ripping off tourists during money exchange transactions has become a very common occurrence.
There are no service charges to exchange money at a bank, so don’t listen to that crooked teller demand honest service.
Lots of Cubans working money exchange scams, including the flight check-in personnel at the airport. It goes without saying that any traveler is an idiot to exchange money anywhere except at a proper institution, or between trusted friends. (And as noted above, even at the bank you have to be frigging careful.)
6.) Counterfeit Money : Counterfeit Convertible Pesos are quite common now, and not just in Havana. To familiarize yourself with how the money looks, and the security features, have a look here...
7.) Credit Cards : Never let your credit card out of sight, and always keep your carbon copies. Twice I’ve had monster cash advances taken out on my credit card, and processed through Spain. I discovered it when I tried to book a flight, and my credit card was maxed.
8.) Restaurants and Bars : Never run a bar tab always pay as you go. Keep a menu so you can compare the final bill against the real prices. In some places like Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in Havana it’s a given that your bill will always be padded.
9.) Fake Menus : The Bar Neptuno in Havana is a typical Cuban bar of very questionable repute, just down the street from my casa. A beer or a mojito is $1.
I can’t count the number of times as I’ve walked home that I’ve saved distraught tourists from that little hellhole because they’ve allowed themselves to be talked into buying their new “fren” a drink, and after a couple of rounds discover their bar tab is $75. When they express outrage/dismay, a “menu” is quickly produced by the bartender, showing a mojito going for $7.50. Always ask the price, before you buy…
By the way, I reached behind the bar once and stole the fake menu. It’s now framed, on a wall in my casa. It’s a source of great hilarity for Cuban friends.
10.) Taxis : If you’re not running the meter, always confirm the full price before you start the trip. The metered rate is the same as anywhere else simply what the meter says, and no more. Some taxi drivers will try and convince you the tariff rate, kilometre rate and the taxi rate has to be added together. Pretty funny, actually.
11.) Customs Duty Coming Into Cuba : If you have too much luggage, or you’re carrying something suspect (ALL luggage is X-Rayed upon arrival in Cuba) you’ll be red-flagged and hauled into Secondary Inspection.
Cuban Customs Regulations are quite simple and straightforward. If you’re trying to bring in something out of the ordinary (especially electronics) familiarize yourself with the regulations and refuse to pay any duty that is not correct. Waving a copy of the Regulations and not speaking Spanish is actually an advantage in these situations. (I derive perverse pleasure from hassling crooked Customs Agents.)
12.) Overweight Baggage Charges Exiting Cuba : When you’re leaving home always check the exact weight of your checked luggage at the airport. When the Cuban check-in agent tries to tell you you’re overweight on your return leg, don’t put up with that crap. Canadians in particular are singled out for this scam because they’re too polite, complacent and easily bullied. Believe me, the Cuban check-in agents would never try to pull this stunt on a plane full of Italians!!!
(I’ve seen weights taped to the back side of the scales at Varadero, and when I made a big scene they all expressed horror at the deception, claiming the “other shift did it.” Very, very funny. )
13.) Cigars : The cigars you bought from your best friend bartender/guide/cleaning lady/taxi driver who has a father/brother/uncle working at the cigar factory are counterfeit. They were not taken from the factory, they are counterfeit. No matter how well you know your fren, they are counterfeit.
- I’m not saying they’re bad cigars.
I’m simply saying they’re 100% fake. Accept this, get over it, and enjoy them!
14.) Rum : Fake rum is available everywhere where there’s tourists. Your new “frens” will always have a “special” deal where they can get Havana Club 7 year at a much better price than the store. Obviously, it’s all fake.
Unlike fake cigars though, fake rum can be dangerous. Quality varies from quite good, to gut-rot that’ll just about kill you. Always buy your booze from a government vendor.
Another place where rum is scammed a lot is in clubs. It’ll be real rum just not the stuff you ordered. In other words, the $25 bottle of Havana 7 year will be cut with cheap 3 year. The only way to be sure you’re receiving what you ordered is to insist that the seal is unbroken.
I ordered a bottle recently at the National Cabaret, and the seal was broken. I sent it back, and the new one arrived the same way. The Manager got quite irate with me, but to no avail. Finally, after a 10 minute wait, a sealed bottle arrived. One of the waiters was an acquaintance, and later that night admitted the Manager had to send a runner out to the store to buy a real bottle!
There’s lots of other things I could mention, but really, they’re not important.
It all boils down to one simple thing... Cuba is NOT a difficult destination (as a matter of fact, it's incredibly easy to travel there) but always USE COMMON SENSE!!!