Last Updated on November 7, 2020 by Bryony Clapperton
For all Cuba’s culture and wonder, it has its struggles. The local Cuban and tourist relationship is a little unbalanced at times to say the least.
In Havana and other main cities tourism booming. But the presence of tourism comes with some adversity. In Cuba scams are rife among the main tourists areas. Before visiting Cuba you should know that a fundamental part of travelling in Cuba is avoiding the hustle and scams in Cuba.
The harsh truth of the matter is that in Cuba, if you’re a tourist, you’re faced with the constant battle against street hustlers and the friendly natured scammers.
Before I get into it, I should say this doesn’t make Cuba any less of a truly unique and captivating slice of the world to visit. In fact, the hustle in the day to day life of Cuba actually makes backpacking Cuba more of a thrill.
Here’s a how to guide on staying clear of scams in Cuba and avoiding the daily hustle of travel in Cuba.
Now, I know that Cuba isn’t the secluded little island that many once thought it was. Travel in Cuba is becoming more and more popular and more accessible.
With tourism to Cuba now an option to the USA, travel to Cuba is growing in popularity. Whilst Cuba continues to keep it’s identity, the exploitative nature of the tourist local relationship is ever present.
In Cuba the Cuban people are tactful in their way of authentic Cuban life, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on about Cuba it’s that the hustle is very real.
Being a tourist, no matter how wealthy you are makes you a prime target to be hustled. Here are some of the most common scams in Cuba to be aware of.
Scams in Cuba
Accommodation scams in Cuba
After arriving in Cuba we very quickly came to understand that the only real way to experience Cuba is by staying in casa particular.
Casas particulares are the homes of the Cuban people that are open to tourists. The government heavily controls accommodation in Cuba, all hotels are state run.
In the late 90’s in a step away from state owned accommodations, the Cuban government enabled families to open up their homes to tourists.
Cubans could register their homes as businesses and allow tourists to stay as long as the state was given a cut of the profit.
Although this isn’t necessarily a scam, the overpriced nature of state hotels are something budget travellers should avoid. By staying in a casa not only do you support the Cuban economy, but you send a message.
How much are casas particulares?
Prices and nightly rates vary. I’m sure if you visit Havana more than once and stay at the same casa you’ll manage to get a different nightly rate.
Look to pay between $20-$30 per night. Our cheapest casa in Playa Larga cost under $20. Many come with optional extras such as a breakfast or dinner if you want to add this on.
We booked our first casa through Hostelworld, but many cannot be found or booked online.
Note that a lot of accommodations in Havana are not on Hostelworld, as wifi isn’t always accessible for locals and tourists in Cuba so do all your booking before you travel to Cuba.
The insight into Cuban life you experience from staying in a Casa is unrivaled. No hotel experience in Cuba could match up to having the option to spend time with a Cuban family.
You can spot most casas as they have a blue and white anchor sign above the door. You can walk in and politely ask the rate.
Taxi and collectivo scams
There are four main ways to travel around Cuba;
- The Viazul
- Local busses
Local busses are generally out of the question unless you have very confident Spanish. Collectivos are also tricky to negotiate unless you have confident Spanish too.
Taxis and the Viazul are the main methods of transport around Cuba for tourists. There are taxis galore in Cuba.
In every town and city you will find an abundance of multi-coloured taxis. Many are vintage cars, you’ll want to keep this in mind when paying more for a vintage car tour.
Prices don’t really fluctuate with Cuban taxis and small journey can often cost you the same as a much longer journey. Almost any journey you take across the city of Havana will cost $10.
There is a rank-like waiting system in Cuba and often in Havana the fare is passed to the person at the front of the queue, despite having negotiated with someone else.
Although this isn’t a scam in Cuba, the nature of taxis and prices often make you feel scammed. Most of Havana can be seen on foot, so avoid having to take taxis when you can.
As I mentioned earlier, unless you have confident Spanish you’ll struggle to use local transport in Cuba.
The Viazul is the only bus company that operates in Cuba and it’s set up primarily and unsurprisingly for tourists only.
Cuban national’s can’t travel on this service so the Viazul bus is usually filled with other tourists and backpackers heading to various areas of the Island.
The Viazul bus system across Cuba works on a first come first served basis.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself stood in a two hour queue to get hold of a ticket, especially at the Havana Bus Station.
The journeys are pleasant and comfortable. We were often taken to a restaurant on route and it was strongly suggested we eat for a low cost.
Guess what? This is just another tourist hustle and common scam that happens regularly across Latin America.
The Viazul is okay value for money, most of the journeys we took were between 4 and 6 hours and cost between $30-$60 depending on distance.
There are better value bus services in the world but there are worse value too.
Occasionally it works out cheaper for you to join with another group or due heading back to Havana and pay for a collectivo taxi to take you to your casa.
Collectivo transport and taxis are very common in Cuba and by jumping in with other backpackers and locals you may pay a couple of CUC more but you also may save on the hefty Viazul prices.
Restaurant scams in Cuba
There are some restaurant scams to be aware of in Cuba. Although I have briefly mentioned restaurant scams in Cuba already, I should warn you this will be the peak of your annoyance in Cuba.
Generally, the price you are quoted in a restaurant will be inflated. Likewise, the price will be rounded up in the same sense taxis are. Most plates of food will cost $10.
Not directly a scam, this hustle can be avoided if you stay away from the big tourist spots and favourites.
Tour guide scams
One of the most notable scams in Cuba is the tour guide scam. Everyone in Cuba wants to be your friend. Some genuinely do, some genuinely do not.
As a tourist in Cuba you always feel that divide between the locals and yourself. I called this unbalanced earlier and that wasn’t an exaggeration.
Avoid being hustled by guides on the street hoping to show you a restaurant or a bar or an area of the city.
Although the people of Cuba are friendly they are looking for a tip and will often suggest the price. Whilst I appreciate the economic deprivation in Cuba the tipping culture is unsustainable.
Donations and tipping do not promote sustainable tourism and a country or city can become dependent on tourist good will. Although many Cubans work close to tourism because of this, you can’t help but get annoyed at the tipping culture that exists.
We found this particularly hard on a low budget backpacking trip as we simply didn’t factor in so much tipping.
As a rule, if the locals don’t tip you shouldn’t either.
National holiday scams
One of the more common Cuba scams is the ‘national holiday’ scam. At some point during your time in Cuba you will be told it is a national holiday.
Everyone is told it is a national holiday no matter what time of year you choose to visit the island. Because it is a Cuban ‘national holiday’ you can purchase cigars, rum and other Cuban goods for cheap.
This is not true and one of the biggest hustles in Havana.
The cigar hustle is a big one in Cuba and almost everyone I’ve spoken to who has been to Cuba has told me about the national Cuban holiday and cooperativas.
A cooperativa is basically a collection of people who work within the cigar industry that can legally sell cigars without tax and for a cheaper price, whether this is true or not I do not know.
This is a cigar tourist scam and one of the most common in Cuba.
Generally, if you agree you will be taken to a house or room where you are prompted to buy cigars. Often the cigars fakes and tourists have been known to spend hundreds of dollars on banana leaf cigars.
The cigar/national holiday Cuba scam his is the biggest and most successful hustle in Cuba.
The capital of hustle in Cuba
Viñales is usually always on any Cuban tourist bucket list. The geological Mogotes, tobacco farming and rainy ecosystem attract a large number of tourists into the mountainous region.
Once you arrive the only way of leaving is to catch the next Viazul the following day.
From my experience and others we met getting Cuban public transport from Viñales is almost impossible. Buses will simply drive past tourists. I
n Viñales there is a desperation for tourism. You sense it the second you step off the Viazul bus. The economic benefits of tourism and all the exploitation that comes with it are evident and all around you.
There is a tourist premium for everything and you are expected to pay it. The town of Viñales from what I experienced is very overdependent on tourism.
Bear this in mind when questioning the inflated costs and don’t be afraid to question whether your presence is helping or harming the people of Viñales.
Avoiding the scams in Cuba
From the baking heat in the streets of Havana Vieja to way up high trekking in Viñales, Cuba provokes so many thoughts.
The daily hustle is part of the Cuban heart beat and you almost get used to the constant battle against the hustle.
A key point to make about Cuba and Havana is undoubtedly busy and bustling but it is far from dangerous.
When I arrived in Cuba I initially worried for my safety when I saw the level of poverty in some areas of Havana.
It quickly became apparent to me that although Havana may feel poor in areas it is rich in culture and community and far from dangerous for tourists.
In fact, although Downtown Havana is a hustler’s paradise I never once felt in danger or saw any tourist directed crime. From arriving in the middle of the night and experiencing the longest immigration and baggage collection in the history of travel, then to realising how safe Cuba truly is.
Viñales was the one part of Cuba where I really felt exhausted from the hustle the people I met seemed to have tapped into such an exploitative version of tourism.
In many ways the economy in Viñales thrived on tourism and I wouldn’t necessarily say that was a good thing. We saw something similar in Havana, although tourism in Havana felt a little more natural.
The hustle in Cuba is part of its rhythm and although frustrating at times, it has become part of the Cuban culture.
So yes, the hustle is real and I’m not too sure its avoidable but keep these thoughts in mind to avoid the major hustles and scams in Cuba.