Written by Kieran

Scams In Cuba (2023)

In this article we cover the most common scams you will be likely to encounter while travelling in Cuba. The ...

In this article we cover the most common scams you will be likely to encounter while travelling in Cuba. The Cuban scams covered below are not just common in Havana, they’re across the entire island and you will encounter at least one of them while in Cuba.

Before getting into what the scams are and how to avoid them or how to get yourself out of these scams if you happen to be suckered into one of them, let’s cover the basics.

Is there crime in Cuba?

Yes. Cuba has crime. Cuba is not crime free. And Havana like any major city has more than its fair share of the crime that is present in Cuba. In Havana you will encounter scammers and criminals daily. More often than not they’ll be standing right outside your hotel waiting for tourists.

Cuban statistics are notoriously sketchy and the crime rates published by the Cuban government are not reliable. With that said, crime involving tourists would more often fall into the category of ‘petty crime’ as there are still harsh penalties for crimes involving tourists.

Is there violent crime in Cuba?

Yes. Cuba has violent crime. On my second night staying in Old Havana by Parque Cristo I walked outside to get internet. As I stepped out onto my casa particulars front step, something shiny whizzed past my face.

It was a large bladed kitchen knife and there was what could best be described as a gang battle in progress with 6-8 individuals wielding everything from machetes and kitchen knives to broken bottles and bricks. Right on my airbnb’s doorstep.

In Cuba there are murders involving tourists. But these are most often relationship breakdowns between a Cuban and their foreign partner. They’re not crimes involving random tourists.

In the extremely rare event that a tourist is caught up in violent crime you can expect it to get relatively little if any media coverage. Canadians murdered in Varadero for instance get little coverage in the USA and none in Australia.

Thankfully, as an unnamed diplomat mentioned as we sped down the highway and through roadblocks in a diplomatic vehicle without stopping on our way to Varadero for a swim, most tourists who die in Cuba do so from a little too much excitement or too many penis pills.

In my case I found out that the casa particular I’d booked on Airbnb was in a crime riddled block that smelt like an open sewer. So I cancelled the booking the next day. And I moved over to the suburb of Vedado in Havana.

Is Cuba Safe?

Yes, Cuba is safe when compared to other countries in its region and the broader Americas. You really don’t need to worry about personal safety when travelling to Cuba. You should however take standard precautions such as having travel insurance, not taking flashy jewellery or high value items and you should always act with common sense.

Don’t leave expensive items or anything you wouldn’t want to be taken laying around unattended and you’ll be fine. Most of the crime tourists will be likely to experience in Cuba will be petty, opportunistic thefts and scams.

What are the safest suburbs in Havana for tourists?

Vedado, Miramar, Playa and suburbs of Havana that are outside of the centre are the safest for tourists and foreigners more broadly. Yet more of a consideration is the level of comfort, noise and smell.

Those pictures you might be looking at on booking sites probably show lovely rooms and apartment rentals in Centro with convenient access to all the Old Town tourist attractions. What they don’t convey is the noise and smell you’ll encounter.

Without the invention of some sort of smell-o-vision and a video walk through of the property, you won’t know the whole suburb smells like an open sewer and is noisy 24/7.

You will also encounter comparatively less scammers, thieves and criminals in places like Vedado and the other suburbs that are outside of central Havana.

From the window of my airbnb in Centro I could watch grown adults poop on the street.

From the balcony of the Airbnb casa particular in Vedado, with my morning coffee I could watch all the old cars roll past the Capri Hotel on their way down the street to Hotel Nacional. I know which one I’d choose again.

Scams | The Main Scams You Will Encounter In Cuba

Fake Cigars in Cuba

One of the more common and least malicious of all the scams operating in Cuba. Most tourists think of cigars, rum and old cars when they think of Cuba. But most tourists wouldn’t be able to tell one cigar from another. Let alone a real cigar from a counterfeit item.

If somebody walks up to you on the street and offers to sell you a cigar, its a fake. The only place to buy genuine cigars is in stores. But not just any stores, official government owned outlets.

Street scammers will often tell tourists that today is their lucky day. Because it’s ‘the national day of the cigar and everything is half price’. If they manage to find a sucker that’s interested, they will walk them to the ‘store’ and rip them off with fake cigars sold at ridiculously high prices.

The alternate and more malicious version of this scam is to sit in the ‘store’ and have a cigar with the customer (i.e. the sucker). And maybe a rum. Either as a ‘free sample’ or ‘don’t worry friend it’s cheap.’ Because ‘today is the national day of the cigar.’ Then the bill will come due and the sucker will owe upwards of $100USD per fake cigar and any drinks for them and their newfound ‘friend’.

Cuba does have a ‘national cigar day’ and it’s on February 27. But once you’ve heard ‘today is the national day of the cigar’ five times or more per day, every day for months on end, you’ll probably do what I did. Which was to start finishing the scammers sentences and politely suggest that they go somewhere unpleasant.

Fake Rum in Cuba

Fake rum will be sold in the same fashion and usually side-by-side with fake cigars. There will be some sort of ‘national rum day’ or some other limited time event. This is a standard sales tactic. It gives a reason for why you should buy it then and there and not another day or time.

If it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Cuba, it’s definitely a scam. Nothing is free in Cuba and Cuban’s are nice. But not so nice as to walk up and want to help a random tourist.

Also, if you buy a bottle of liquor somewhere and it tastes like moonshine, it probably is. So tip it out and get a bottle from a different shop or have one delivered on Mandao.

Fake Tickets and bookings in cuba

Once again, somebody will approach you on the street. They will be a tourist guide or event promoter. Or more likely they’ll claim to own one of the nicer American cars that Cuba is famed for.

They’ll offer to do you a deal and book you an all day tour in one of the cars. At a ‘special price friend’ that will be five times what it would normally cost. And they will tell you that they’re always booking out. So you should set a day and time with them and pay in advance or at least leave a deposit.

And if you do pay or give them that deposit you can consider the money as good as gone the second you had it over. Whatever token, ticket or note they give you in return won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. They probably don’t even have a drivers licence. And they wouldn’t own one of the nicer American cars which are worth a small fortune on the island.

Again, in Cuba if it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Cuba, it’s definitely a scam.

Restaurant and Bar Scams in Cuba

This is one of the more malicious scams in Cuba. And you absolutely should not go to a bar or restaurant with a random Cuban who has approached you on the street.

Somebody will identify you as a tourist or foreigner and walk up to you on the street. They will offer to tell you where all the good bars and restaurants are so you can avoid the government run places and tourist traps and instead ‘see real cuban restaurants and bars friend’.

What they actually mean is that they will take you to the places that they work with and who will inflate prices on anything you buy so as to give the person who took you to that establishment a kickback. And not a small kickback but a sizeable chunk of the large sums of money they will shake you down for.

If you’re silly enough to go with one of these people you can expect two mojitos in a hole in the wall local bar to come with a bill that is $100USD or more. God help you if you stay for more than one drink with these people and order food or more drinks because that trip to a bar or restaurant may come with a bill equivalent to your whole budget for Cuba.

Again, in Cuba if it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Cuba, it’s definitely a scam.

Short Changed Scams in cuba

You can expect to be short changed in Cuba. The person you’re paying will either not have enough money to give you change, for example if you’re in a taxi. Or they will just not give you the correct change in a busy store and you will be halfway down the street before you realise you got short changed.

To avoid this one carry smaller notes and have close to exact change for any item you’re paying for.

Personally, I never worried too much about this scam as its relatively small change. And if you have exchanged money at the informal black market rate in Cuba it’s a tiny amount. If you’re exchanging at the official rate it can add up.

Money exchange or currency scams

Everyone you meet on the street in Cuba is going to offer to change money with you, or for you, at a better rate than the official exchange rate. Every single one of the street scammers selling fake cigars, fake rum, fake tickets and running bar or restaurant scams is going to mention changing money with them at better rates. Do not do it.

Don’t tell these people what currency you have, where you’re from or what rate you are exchanging money. Completely avoid conversing with them in all instances if you can.

The rates they want to tell you about will differ and usually keep getting higher and higher as you show no interest. Don’t even indulge in the idea of changing money with a stranger on the street.

They may slip you counterfeit currency but more likely, they are changing your money using a WhatsApp group and giving you a lot less (10-50% less) than they are selling your dollars and euros.

To get a feel for where the real exchange rate is in Cuba on any given day, try looking at Revolico and searching for ‘efectivo’ (cash). Also, just ask a bartender or waitress when you’re having a drink as everyone always knows the current exchange rates and will tell you. Just don’t ask random people who have walked up to you on the street.

Again, in Cuba if it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Cuba, it’s definitely a scam.

Jineteros/jineteras | Love scams in Cuba

There’s a lot said on the internet about Cuba’s Jineteros and Jineteras. They’re effectively just the Cuban equivalent of ‘gold diggers’. Every country in the world has them, it’s just the Cuban version has its own local term.

While it might be slang for ‘jockey’ or whatever and they may ‘ride’ tourists for money, they aren’t hookers and shouldn’t be confused with hookers. Hookers have pimps and jineteras don’t. But they probably do have local boyfriends and brothers you should beware of if you mistreat them.

Jineteros and Jineteras will try and get cash from tourists, yet they are usually genuinely interested in learning English and learning about foreign cultures and places. They will want you to take them to nice restaurants (and pay), buy them things and give them money just like any other gold digger the world over.

And while they have the negative aspect that they probably aren’t looking at you as any form of long term relationship prospect and are probably most interested in your wallet, they do have a positive aspect. That aspect is that they will cause any other street scammer to think twice and avoid approaching you with a scam.

Support For The Cuban People

You will often encounter people in Cuba claiming they need money and giving you a sob story. Particularly among younger Cubans and they will use the ‘support for the Cuban people’ slogan to try to make you feel sorry for them.

Don’t give them money. They’ll just spend it on junk. You’ll just be feeding the beast.

I’ve written an article about the younger generation in Cuba and their attempts to make you feel sorry for them and give them money. You can read my article about ‘support for the Cuban people’ here.

The Strange Effect Cuban’s Have On Other Cubans

There’s a weird aspect to having Cuban friends in Cuba. And that is every other Cuban see’s you with one of their fellow countrymen and assumes that Cuban you are with is already ripping you off. So they avoid you out of respect for that Cuban you’re with, not wanting to disrupt whatever scam they think their countrymen is running on you.

Standing next to a Jinetero or jinetera will mean you see a lot less of the other scams covered above. But, like anything in Cuba if it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Cuba, it’s definitely a scam.

Avoid jineteras in Cuba by avoiding using Tinder as the Cubans on Tinder are all after tourists and foreigners. And avoid any flashy looking women wearing excessive amounts of fake Gucci.

New Cuban Financial Scams In 2023

Ever since the US embassy reopened in January 2023 there are new financial scams being developed and perfected in Cuba. All of them play on a foreigners sympathies for ‘poor struggling’ Cubans.

In essence somebody you meet will try to befriend you and will tell you that they can now apply for a visa to the United States. But that they need a sponsor and capital. Which of course they will promise to pay back as soon as they’re in the US and employed.

Now, just like paying a Cuban in advance, you should never loan money to a Cuban or offer to sponsor them in anything. It’s like giving a gold digger a limitless credit card.

The second you go guarantor or loan a Cuban money you can consider the money gone. The Cuban will never pay you back. And the Cuban likely won’t even leave Cuba. They’ll just blow the money on junk.

The amounts of money that they’ll ask you to loan them or go guarantor for will range from $10k USD to $50k USD. Don’t do it.

I should also add that a slight deviation on this scam is the housing scam. They’ll tell you because everyone is leaving Cuba that there’s cheap houses and they want to buy one to rent out with some fabulously unbelievable return per month.

Cuba is uninvestable. If you pay for a property it will be in the Cuban’s name. And you’ll never see ownership of that property or that money again. Never loan money to a Cuban.

Where Can I Get More Information About Cuba?

I’ve made my Complete Guide To Traveling Cuba available on this website. And I would strongly advise you to read it before travelling to Cuba. It will help you navigate Cuba and Cuban society.

My Complete Guide To Cuba will save you a lot of time and a significant amount of money on your trip to Cuba. Cuba is not the sort of destination in which you can just arrive unprepared. 

Read the most Complete Guide To Traveling Cuba here.

For those interested in other scams operating throughout South and Central America, we’ve previously covered the scams in Argentina.