Cuba Scams to Avoid and Watch Out For
It’s disappointing to think of Cuba as the kind of place where you can get scammed. Yet, as with anywhere in the world, it can happen.
Cuba is somewhere I had wanted to travel to for a long time and annoyingly, it ended up being one of those trips where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
One of them was getting food poisoning, which is something I certainly won’t hold against Cuba.
However, there were a few instances where I felt like we were taken advantage of for being tourists and not knowing how things worked in this country.
We weren’t relieved of vast amounts of money, by any means. That being said, it is never nice to find yourself on the end of a scam, particularly when you want to think the best of someone and they take advantage of that.
Cuba is a place I feel very conflicted about because I met some genuinely lovely people there – the type of people I won’t forget in a hurry and still think of often.
Yet, I also met some real dirtbags, who were clearly just trying to make money off any person or situation that they could.
Ultimately, I wish that I had been a little more informed when I travelled to Cuba, so I could have avoided some of these situations.
I’ve tried to be fair and balanced in writing this article – it’s not a slur on Cuba in general, which is one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever visited.
Rather, these scams are just something you should keep an eye out for, when travelling through this Caribbean country.
If you’re looking for further information, be sure to check out these Cuba travel tips.
Cuba scams we personally experienced
Things started going downhill fast when we arrived in Trinidad, after spending a few days in Havana.
My travel partner and I had both contracted gastro and it hit us hard. So, our time in Trinidad was mostly a write off. Such a shame, as it was the city I’d been most looking forward to seeing.
We spent two days in the same casa – trying to sleep off whatever we’d caught, not to much avail. The casa owner – our “Casa Mama” as we nicknamed her, was an absolute gem.
Every few hours she’d knock on our door, armed with a tray of chicken soup. Exactly what you want when you’re ill and I consumed each bowl gratefully.
The third day in Trinidad saw us moving on. It was with a rather sad farewell that we hugged her goodbye and moved on to our next casa. This was around the time where things started really going downhill.
Scam #1 – Inflated Taxi Prices
Sick of staring at the wall of our casa, I decided it was time to get to a beach.
If I’d been 100%, I probably would have gone outside and found a taxi to take us there, after bargaining a price with them. Too weak to do this, I asked our casa owner for some assistance and he rallied up a car for us.
This is an obvious one for anyone who travels a lot, but duh – I should have asked for the price before getting in the car. It’s something I usually do and would have, had I been in my right mind.
As it were, I wish I had, because the journey out to the beach and back ended up costing us 20 Cuban Convertible Pesos (also known as CUC and are equivalent to 1 USD).
Keep in mind that it had cost us 25 CUC to take a five hour bus to the Trinidad the day before. I was not impressed.
How to avoid this scam: Firstly, try not to poison your guts because it’s your second brain and can serious impede on your ability to think clearly. Always ask prices before getting into vehicles, so you’re not met with any unpleasant surprises at journey’s end.
Scam #2 – Taxi Bike Ripoffs
Taxis in Cuba usually aren’t metered. As we’d learned, it’s best to negotiate the price before setting out. Whilst in Havana we found that prices should have been below 10 CUCs and even less for a short trip.
Taxis will sometimes try to overcharge, but are open to haggling. Settle on a price that is fair for everyone. Many of them will not have the right change, meaning you may end up having to pay them the price they originally wanted anyway.
We did have an issue in Havana with a taxi bike, the one and only time we used one.
We haggled and he quoted us 4 CUC at the time, (he’d wanted 8 CUCs to begin with). Joke was on us when he took us to our destination and told us it was 4 CUCs each.
If I’d had the correct change, I would have just given him the 4 CUCs and been done with it. Unfortunately, we only had a 10 CUC note. I was irritated, but there was nothing I could do about it.
At the end of the day, it was only a few CUCs more, but it’s the principle of the thing, I tell you!
How to avoid this scam: Always haggle for a fair price. Carry change, if possible in both pesos (the local Cuban currency) and CUCs. Or, pay the drivers at the beginning of the ride, once you’re in the car and are settled on a price. I did this a handful of times after growing wise to the “no change” scam and it worked a charm.
Scam #3: The Horse Ride From Hell
I love riding horses and have done so in countries all over the world.
So, when I heard that you could journey to a famous waterfall in Trinidad via horseback, I leapt at the chance.
This was organised again by the same casa owner, as we clearly hadn’t learned our mistake the first time. We were taken to a house in Trinidad and mounted the sorriest looking pair of horses I’d seen in a long while.
From there, we began a long, bumpy journey out to the “waterfall” – what ended up being no more than a trickle into a tiny lagoon (to be fair, waterfalls are weather reliant, but still annoying when it was sold as this impressive great thing). We had to pay 6 CUCs for someone to “mind the horses”, after paying for the ride itself, which was a bit annoying but I guess an amount I wasn’t losing any sleep over.
For the entire trip, my heart went out to the horses, who were constantly whipped into submission by the tour operators.
When riding horses in Iceland for comparison’s sake, we stopped often, giving the animals a break when needed to chew on some grass, or drink water out of a stream.
The Cuban horses were driven for hours without stopping and whipped although they were moving as fast as they were able to.
My horse was harassed by one of the tour operators when going uphill, despite the fact that there was no room for it to move past the horse in front. It stumbled so heavily that I nearly fell off it, which would have led to me being trampled by those behind me.
Keep in mind I wasn’t wearing a helmet as they hadn’t provided any. I’ve ridden in Kyrgyzstan and was given a helmet for that trip.
By the time we arrived back in Trinidad, the creatures sides were streaked with sweat. They were exhausted. I felt sorry to leave them, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to get away.
How to avoid this scam: I would think twice about riding horses in countries where animal welfare is maybe not of the highest concern. And there is something to be said about relying on your gut, or women’s waters, as I call it due to being a woman. If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it and get out of the situation as fast as possible.
Scam #4: Charging for toilets and toilet paper
Like many public toilets around the world, Cuban ones often don’t feature toilet paper. I had read up about this in advanced and packed my own roll.
What I didn’t know was that many attendants on tourist routes charge you just to enter the toilet.
We experienced this a few times travelling around the country – I had first thought they were charging for toilet paper as the attendant was giving it out. When I indicated that I had my own, they still forced me to pay 1 CUC.
Okay, so there’s a toilet tax. I get it. Yet, it seemed to be one put in place purely for tourists travelling along that particularly path.
I know a lot of countries pay for toilet use, yet it’s something that personally gets up my nose, as I hail from a country where public toilets – from the sparkling clean to the truly grotesque – are free. I resent paying to use the amenities in countries like the UK and I sure didn’t enjoy it in Cuba.
How to avoid this scam: Pee on the side of the road? No, don’t do that. That’s icky. I guess it’s unavoidable and just make sure you have change on hand.
Scam #5 – The Commission Network
This isn’t a phenomenon that is purely Cuban in origin, as many countries in the world operate on a commission basis, when recommending places to stay, eat or shop (India, I’m looking at you!).
The Cuban commission network is particularly prevalent in sourcing Casa Particulars. For those unfamiliar with the practice, Cubans open up their homes to foreigners, renting out rooms, much like a B&B.
It’s a particularly popular way to stay amongst backpackers and I do highly recommend it. You’re giving back directly to the community, if you speak some Spanish you can converse with your casa owners and find out more about the country and their lives. Of course, you can still communicate without a shared language, which we ended up doing with one of our casa owners and learnt a lot from him.
There is a thing known as a “casa chain” where you get passed from house to house off recommendations, while some sort of commission is being unknowingly exchanged behind your back.
There’s nothing wrong with this really, unless it raises the price for the tourist. We found most Casa Particulars are priced at around $20-$25. If you’re travelling in pairs, a room can cost as little as $10 a night.
It’s an experience I highly recommend. You can even book them online now, which you couldn’t so much when we travelled there.
One thing we were told by some locals was that it would be “extremely difficult” to find rooms of our own accord as it was peak season. There was one night where we headed back to Havana and didn’t have a room booked – we knocked around on doors and found a free space after ten minutes.
How to avoid this scam: Keep your wits about you. Be aware of the pricing system and be fair but don’t let anyone take advantage of you.
Scam #6 – Being told things are “closed” and being directed elsewhere
This happened on an organised tour! We were supposed to go to a rum factory and were told it was closed and were sent elsewhere… to a shop that sold rum, nonetheless.
I have heard of others being told things like museums are closed and being directed to bars or shops instead, with the directees being given a commission for their services.
How to avoid this scam: Be discerning and perhaps don’t believe everything you are told!
A few other Cuba scams to keep in mind
We were lucky enough not to encounter any of these issues, but they are just some things to be mindful of.
People will offer you boxes of cigars at a fraction of the price that stores sell them for. Seems like a bargain, hey?
Well, you pay the price. They’re usually lower quality tobacco, sometimes merely being banana leaves. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Or actually don’t.
It’s said that some of these cigars can’t be taken out of the country, as they don’t have official stamps on them. I don’t know if this is the case – we bought ours from a store – but it’s something to be mindful of.
Similarly, be wary of vendors on the streets selling Wifi cards (which you need to access the Internet).
We bought us from a local shop in Trinidad and they cost 2 CUCs. We were offered them on the street for 6 CUCs – I understand that they should get a little something for their trouble but that may be taking the piss.
There may be people on the street offering exchange rates which seem superior to those at the currency stores, but this can often show itself as being a Cuba scam.
They may give you Cuban Pesos instead of CUCs, which are worth sooooo much less. If you do choose to participate in this sort of exchange, always check that the cash is the right amount.
I would personally stick to the currency exchange stores. Definitely visit the ones in town, those at the airport will have upsetting rates, as with anywhere in the world.
On Travelling Alone, As a Woman
I travelled to Cuba with my boyfriend, but had a few moments where I did wonder about how comfortable I would have been on my own, having a very basic level of Spanish.
There was one moment in Viñales when I was walking down the road alone, possibly for the first time on my trip. A man reached out and grabbed my arm, trying to pull me into a nearby club. This was in broad daylight as well. I shook him off, yelled “NO” and marched on up the road. I was more annoyed than shaken and felt safe in a crowded street, but still. Grr.
I guess sadly for women everywhere, the same rules apply in Cuba as in other parts of the world.
Be Vigilant, But Be Fair
At the end of the day, there are scummy people all over the world. I’ve encountered similar scams in Morocco, France and India. It’s all part of the travel experience, as far as I’m concerned.
We were shown great kindness while in Cuba. I’ll never forget the concern on our “casa mama’s” face when we got sick or all the soup she gave us for free, refusing to accept extra money. I met plenty of other interesting and passionate people, who opened up their homes and hearts. I’m grateful for this.
This post is intended to help those who are planning on travelling to Cuba, but sometimes you have to experience these sort of things yourself.
After all – the more you travel, the more you learn. If you end up being short only a few CUCs, then I guess you’re doing all right.
Have you travelled to Cuba? Did you encounter any of these scams?
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