Is Cuba Safe - Scams to Avoid in Cuba

Is Cuba Safe To Travel? 10 Cuba Scams To Avoid

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Is Cuba safe to travel? Yes, it is actually one of the safest countries in the world when measuring crime figures. However, years of financial oppression has resulted in the creation of crafty ways of making money, some aimed at tourists. While you may experience some of the following Cuba scams, they will be delivered with charm and while it can get annoying, just remember your position of privilege which allows you to visit Cuba. Let’s find out about the popular scams in Cuba so you can be cautious of them during your trip. Note: All of these scams happened to us or tourists we met during our vacation. We’re happy to talk and here to learn, please leave us a comment below. 


» You make also like | First timer’s guide to Cuba travel


Cuba Travel Safety: Avoid These Scams in Cuba

I rarely say that tourists need to buy travel guides but Cuba is definitely a country you would benefit from having one. Check out the options below. 


1. Fake Cigars in Cuba

One of the most popular souvenirs to take home Cuba has to be cigars.

However, not all cigars are created equally and fake cigars with no duty paid will be confiscated at customs. 

Be wary of buying them on the street as the sealed box may contain banana leaves. 

For the authentic cigars, buy from plantations or shops. 

There is even a great difference in price between authentic Cuban cigars.

If you are budgeting, the finest Cuban cigars were cheaper (three times!) in the official shop in Viñales compared the official shop in Havana.

Viñales is a beautiful, lush town close to Havana. I highly recommend you spend at least a day there during your time in Cuba.  

Finest Cuban Cigars I Cuba Scams

2. When Did You Arrive, Sir?

If you answer “today” expect the response to be along the lines of… 

What a great day to arrive, it’s the national day of – whatever black market goods/service is being sold – at an overinflated price. 

How To Avoid This Scam

Smile, give pleasantries and move on but don’t be afraid to ask if you need help with directions, finding casas particulares (renting a room in a local home, very common in Cuba) or a vintage car tour. 

Financially, some Cubans work in groups.

One member of the group will source what you need and in return they receive some commission from the service owner.

For example, when we hired bikes in Trinidad, we found the bikes through asking a taxi driver who walked us to his friend’s house. From here, we set up the hire for the next day.

Out of curiosity, we asked the bike owner what the taxi driver got out of walking us to their house instead of pointing us in the right direction.

They explained the commission process which a clever way to make money while living in a country which has has been restricted by el bloqueo embargo.

It’s very similar to how bloggers make money.

We recommend services and products we love on our websites, newsletters and social media channels and when you click the affiliate link and purchase, we make a small amount of commission from company. 

Another example of the referral process took place during our second visit to Havana.  

When we arrived back in the city, instead of pre-booking accommodation, we asked a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a casa.

The first casa wasn’t available so he took us to another.

We agreed on a price with the casa owner and stayed for a few nights. The same casa also helped us sort a taxi to the airport.

Somewhere down the line, the tuk-tuk driver will receive a commission for the accommodation sale and the casa owner will get a commission for the taxi sale. Clever eh?

If you do not feel comfortable arriving without planned accommodation I recommend booking a hostel or hotel for the first two nights and then consider moving into a casa the third night. 

Alternatively, book online before you arrive. Casas now advertise on Booking.com and Airbnb.

Just consider that the Airbnb app doesn’t work when you are in Cuba so you won’t be able to contact your host through it. 

Examples of casas:

New to Airbnb? We’ve used it all over the world, sign up using our referral link for money off your first stay and we will receive credit. Thank you!

3. Jinetero Chat 

We’ve met two clever guys who fell for this one as well as having it tried on us!

A jinetero (hustler) will join in your conversation and once you’ve chatted for a while they will ask you to help them out financially. 

In our case we were asked to buy milk (leche).

According to the guys who went along with the scam and our tour guide who explained the process, the jinetero will take you to a shop and the milk will be pre-packaged in a bag ready to go.

Instead of the price of milk you will be charged $20-30. 

Once you leave the shop, the milk is returned and the shopkeeper and the jinetero split their money. 

This seems to be more popular in Havana than other Cuba destinations.

Just be aware and have your wits about you. As soon as you are being led into a shop take your sympathetic ear away and politely say sorry. 

Havana vintage car

4. $6 Coffee 

Coffee can be purchased for around 50 cents – $1 from the wee shop windows dotted around Havana. 

However, some shops sell overpriced coffee to gringos.

Please don’t be surprised when a local kindly offers to buy it for you in local currency (CUP) at a fraction of the cost in exchange for a dollar. 

If you are particularly gullible this scam will be extended.

Your new friend will now wander through the streets with you sharing friendly local knowledge.

Do expect a bill for a private tour at the end. This happened to a mature couple in Havana.

Unsure about Cuban money? Read our Cuban currency guide.

Coffee I Cuba Scams

5. Food in Cuba 

Food in Cuba is a hot potato topic for tourists. Some meals will be great, others will be OK. 

We first tried Ropa Vieja in Trinidad and make it often at home in Scotland. 

If staying in a casa you will have to eat out, unless your host offers to cook for you for an additional charge. 

Like in many countries, PRs will try to encourage you into their restaurant. 

When a PR approaches you, take what is on offer with a pinch of salt. 

Once you are seated, the menu might look at a little different and drinks might not be inclusive of the price as promised. 

We fell victim to this scam in Caleton (Bay of Pigs). It was a little annoying because my partner is a really fussy eater and since Caleton is tiny, choice was limited. 

However, don’t let this put you off visiting the Bay of Pigs if plan to dive. You can read more about diving in Cuba here

Trinidad Food

 

6. Casa Particular Prices

On average, Cuban government wages are $28 per month, some would say this wage is relative to local prices, others would say it’s not. 

To bump up wages, many Cubans rent out second houses or extra rooms.

This is all above board. Official casas have a specific sign outside of their homes and they record your details for government records. 

Casa Symbol in Havana
Staying in a casa is part of the Cuban vacation experience. 

Guidebooks and websites recommend you budget $10-30 per night.

We never paid more than $10 per person (plus breakfast) after the first casa.

Be cautious of how much you pay for casas, there isn’t always that much difference between the properties. 

You can read everything you need to know about casas particulares here.

Should you buy gifts for locals?

Good question and one we get asked often.

We didn’t and were never asked for any.

My good friend, Laura, did feel that there was more of an assumption that tourists would have gifts in the south of the island or possibly because she was part of an organised tour and not travelling independently?

If you do want to bring items, pack items they may actually need such as toiletries or toys for kids. 

Casas Particulares I Cuba

7. “Lo siento, no tengo cambio”

When paying street traders and some shops with notes, expect there to be little change. 

You have two options here.

One, accept being short changed. 

Two, listen out for “no tengo cambio” which means, I have no change. 

Advise the shop keeper that you will go elsewhere if there is no change. 

Learn the language!

We have survival Spanish but struggled, luckily for us we were travelling with a fluent Spanish speaker.

Purchase a phrasebook at the very least.


8. Buses in Cuba 

There are two bus companies that travel throughout Cuba, Viazul and Conectando.

Viazul has a website where you can book seats making it more popular with tourists. 

The journey times are also available on the site.

I suggest that you take a screenshot of the trips you intend to make because no one ever knows the times of the buses. 

The reason for this is unclear.

It could be because regardless of schedules, buses run on ‘Cuba time’ anyway or possibly as casa owners would prefer you stay another night which is what they asked us to do in Caleton near Playa Larga at The Bay of Pigs.

Another reason could be because there are taxi colectivos which do the same route and by selling a ride, commission is made. 

Taxi colectivos are shared car rides.

It is very common for tourists to hire collectivos to get between towns in Cuba. 

You may also be asked to swap cars during long journeys so don’t be spooked if this happens! 

Cuba Car Mogote Vinales

9. Holiday Romance in Cuba 

It is not uncommon to see mature Western women with young Cuban men, salsa dancing in the night clubs of Cuba, specifically in Trinidad.  

However, if you meet a local who picks you up in a cafe or while sightseeing and the police takes a keen interest in your date, it might be time to consider your options fast. 

We met a young Irish high school teacher who set up a date with a waitress of the same age in Trinidad.

He became concerned when the cops were showing her as much interest as he was.

The police understood, only his pride was challenged. 

However, in Havana, a huge group of us joined another traveller who was invited by a local to see a cool live band.

The best advice is to have your wits about you and read the situation. 

The below image is a bronze sculpture by Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo called Fantastic Voyage.

According to our Havana tour guide, it symbolises all the young Cuban women who have sought another life with foreign men. 

Roberto Fabelo I Cuba Scams

10. Shop Shut!

This scam is not unique to Cuba but we did experience a good attempt to get us into a bar and away from The Revolution Museum.

An older couple told us that it was their anniversary! Congratulations, we rejoiced.

After a bit of chat, they asked where we were going… Alas, the museum is closed today but you should check out this bar!

We said our goodbyes and turned a corner to an open museum. They get a commission when you step through the bar door.

This is a common scam in many countries, especially with taxi drivers advising you that hotels/hostels have closed down. 

Havana Revolution Museum I Cuba Scams

Final Words

Now we are not saying Havana is ‘scam city’ and I’ve definitely fell for worse during my travels, Istanbul note scam I’m looking at you!

Be equipped, avoid these tourist scams in Cuba and you’ll have a fun trip. Even if you do fall for any of them, it’s a story to remember. 


Any scams to add? Tell us in the comments below

Gemma and Craig are full-time workers with a life-long travel habit. Flirting with 30 and let loose on the world! Gemma writes, Craig looks good in the photos.

Comments 145

  1. Hey! Same thing happened to us in HK. We used Uber after and it was 5! Times cheaper than the official rate of the taxi. Hope you will have better luck next time.

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  2. Any advice on gifts, I’ve seen a lot of people comment to bring them various gifts from the US but what does that mean toothbrushes shampoos school supplies, trinkets or are they just looking for money only?

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      Hiya Heather, yeah my friend’s mum told us to take gifts (she’s from the UK) but in all honesty I would have felt weird giving gifts over. My friend went in January and said it wasn’t really a thing Havana – Trinidad (my route) but there was an expectation further south of the island and the kind of things that were expected was toiletries. Does that help?

  3. Wow! It was fun to read about scams I’d never heard of or encountered before! Have to give them some credit for being creative… Great to read this and be on the lookout though.

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  4. I live in Havana every winter.. becareful of the 2 menu scam at restaurants..one for cubans and one for tourists…inflated of course!

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  5. I will travel to Havana next February with my boyfriend, I worry a little after reading this article, I am worried that we could not enjoy our stay for being aware of not falling into scams. We booked on airbnb and until now everything sounds good. It is a short trip of 5 days, Do you recommend us to going to Varadero for one night?
    By the way we are mexican.

    Great advices!

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      No need to worry. It’s one of the safest countries to travel around. Just be wary like you would in any country. Have fun! We have heaps of travel guides for Cuba, you can check them out here.

  6. The $20.00 towel … I stay at Villa Cuba now called Be Live in Varadero OK after a few days there are no towels in the room go to front desk and they say I must have lost the towel and would have to pay $20.00 to replace it . I started messing with the manager and said call the police someone must have broken into my room and ripped off the towel this went on for a while then she said are you accusing a Cuban citizen of theft ?
    At this point it started getting serious and I,m thinking ohh ohh problems , so I just said ok let me see if the towel shows up / i,m thinking just grab a towel off a maids cart and be done with it …. Anyway didn’t give them a peso but you could see it is a regular scam …..

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  7. I naively got completely ripped off in Havana at a money exchange by about $100 US dollars!! Make sure you know the rough amount that you should get back and always ask for a receipt.

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      Honestly, it was a fun break. Sure these types of scams are annoying but the country is beautiful. If you are travelling around print off the bus timetables for potential routes and you’ll be a step ahead! There are scams in South America too, just faced them less.

  8. The biggest scam is the blog, I was there a whole month and apart from a high charge for a drive to Viniales (People get ripped off by taxi drivers in most Countries), I was not ripped off at all, but maybe I never had Dumb Tourist written on my forehead. As with any new location, just be Wise. ( Oh and don’t forget to take an umbrella to Cuba, they are impossible to find, yet most locals seem to have them).

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  9. Hey there,
    This is quite embarrassing to read. Two cheap gringos abroad, not contributing anything for the locals. Have you actually checked the issues before writing this post? Milk prices in Cuba are ridiculously high for local people and have recently gone up. Most of the people don’t actually charge more than the price tag says. The families can’t afford milk, that’s why they ask tourist to donate it. If you had to pay $20-30, they must have really not liked you at all. Also, lot of Cubans actually do need money for their family. So they do sell things. But bare in mind that many people work 2-3 jobs. It’s horrible to read cheap backpackers going in poorer countries and you can’t give couple of CUC’s to the locals. Also, the “scam” about private tour. I’m sorry but you can say at any time to Cubans that you wish to explore alone. If you accept their service, you can’t really blame them after. Maybe next time before blaming anyone for being scammers, try to learn a bit about local economy etc. Also, I’d be interested if you speak Spanish or do you just assume that everyone’s trying to scam you. Cubans are very nice and friendly people. It’s very safe country. Only people I’ve ever heard anything negative about them are badly educated native English speakers. Just to give you some reflection for your next trip, average Cuban salary is 20 CUC a month, doctor’s average is 40 CUC. For instance, doctors can make 60 CUC in a day driving a taxi for tourist. However, not everyone has a car. I.e. cigar rollers get around 10 CUC a month. This salary doesn’t get you far. I’d urge to change this blog post. Cheap backpackers are the worst kind of tourist. I’ve studied Tourism and it’s impacts on local communities in Latin America, so I do have knowledge of the subject.

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      Thanks for taking the time to share your insight. Please see our reply below.

      This is quite embarrassing to read. Two cheap gringos abroad, not contributing anything for the locals —> we did contribute by travelling around and not just sitting eating our hotel out of house and home like we witnessed at the all-inclusive resort. Also, we’re not gringos. We’re Scottish.

      Have you actually checked the issues before writing this post? Yes, but it doesn’t mean we can’t write about our experience. I’m sure you would be the first to blast a content creator for not sharing their travel reality. Also, we wrote this from experience, we either faced the scams or met people who had.

      Milk prices in Cuba are ridiculously high for local people and have recently gone up. Most of the people don’t actually charge more than the price tag says. The families can’t afford milk, that’s why they ask tourist to donate it. If you had to pay $20-30, they must have really not liked you at all –> this happened to two male travellers we met on separate occasions, not us. This also happened to my friend in India (I recently found out) – it is not an unknown scam. The shopkeeper has the milk prepared, it’s a tag team approach – it’s not a donation.

      Also, lot of Cubans actually do need money for their family. So they do sell things –> we stayed in their casas, used their taxis, hired bikes, and bought food in their restaurants and via street food vendors.

      But bare (think you mean bear) in mind that many people work 2-3 jobs. It’s horrible to read cheap backpackers going in poorer countries and you can’t give couple of CUC’s to the locals —> see above.

      Also, the “scam” about private tour. I’m sorry but you can say at any time to Cubans that you wish to explore alone. If you accept their service, you can’t really blame them after. Maybe next time before blaming anyone for being scammers, try to learn a bit about local economy etc. –> Which scam is this?

      Also, I’d be interested if you speak Spanish or do you just assume that everyone’s trying to scam you –> Si, survival, and we travelled with a Brit who lives and works in Mexico, she’s fluent. The conversations we had were in English for scams though.

      Cubans are very nice and friendly people –> please read paragraph 1 again.

      It’s very safe country –> please read paragraph 1 again.

      Only people I’ve ever heard anything negative about them are badly educated native English speakers –> Highly educated, two degrees (the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde). This comment brings down the level of your argument.

      Just to give you some reflection for your next trip, average Cuban salary is 20 CUC a month, doctor’s average is 40 CUC. For instance, doctors can make 60 CUC in a day driving a taxi for tourist. However, not everyone has a car. I.e. cigar rollers get around 10 CUC a month. This salary doesn’t get you far. I’d urge to change this blog post. Cheap backpackers are the worst kind of tourist. I’ve studied Tourism and it’s impacts on local communities in Latin America, so I do have knowledge of the subject —> Again, why would you encourage a content creator to not write about their experience? I wish I knew about these scams before I travelled around Cuba – no one is saying don’t travel around the country, we’re saying do it as an informed traveller.

      I recommend you read the rest of our Cuban content to get a bit of perspective and balance about our experience in the country. If you have studied tourism in Latin America, what kind of tourist do you want? One that arrives in Havana, is shuttled to their all-inclusive resort and doesn’t leave to visit anywhere other than Varadero? How does that help the Cuban community? We booked into a resort for one week as we were burning through our daily budget (there’s a misconception that we are all rich which you will know from your studies, we save hard and prioritise our money for travel over flashy phones and designer gear) which isn’t normally our style of travel. The hotel ran out of towels, not an issue. The hotel ran out of bread because of the greedy the holidaymakers who piled their plates high and didn’t eat it. Not an issue.

  10. Hi! I’m leaving for Havana in a few days and want to thank you for writing this and encouraging others to share their experiences as well. I would’ve been naive to some of these schemes and it’s shocking to read one right after the other. It’s been many years since I’ve traveled and either I’ve been lucky in Panama and Ecuador or they just weren’t that scam-heavy. As an American, it would also suck to run out of money due to scamming and not have a debit/credit card that you can use as backup since they’re not accepted… so I do need to keep a close eye on my usage.

    Sounds like there’s a few locals on here who are taking this post personally. To be frank, it took me a while to save for this trip that I’ve been dying to go to since the travel ban was lifted. I worked hard for it. I’d rather give because I wanted and chose to instead of be conned out of money. At the end of the day we need to survive too.

    My sis said the trip doesn’t sound like fun: “too many rules and regulations (U.S.), scamming and bland food”. Could be, but despite that I’m thrilled to finally be out there for a few days.

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      I’m sure you will have a ball, Christine. Thank you for taking the time to read – please come back and let me know how you get on. Another reader has just informed me that WiFi is now down in Havana, I hope this is not true! Let me know.

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  11. Hi Gemma! Took me a while to get back to writing this. So what I can say about Havana is that it’s not an easy place to be in (the poverty), but that I also loved it and hope to return someday. The August heat was killer giving me a bad headache, nausea, and one evening I was concerned I might faint. I’ll never visit in the summer again, lol. The food was pretty bad except for one place and I was dying to get back to home and stuff my face there. Since I’m an American, I can’t use cards there so it was strange to have to carry around large wads of cash and hope I didn’t lose it. The CUC and CUP situation drove me bananas.

    But about the scamming…there was almost none. The only time was at the Cadeca at the airport. I brought over 504 Canadian dollars instead. And the teller gave me a piece of paper with the exchange and saying I gave her 381 Canadian dollars. Wtf? I pointed out to her the amount I gave her. She handed the Canadian dollars back to me and told me to count it and I did it in front of her. So that was resolved. But that was the only time someone tried to scam me.

    I should also point out that the folks down there could not pinpoint where I was from. So maybe that’s why they didn’t bother scamming me. I routinely was asked if I was Peruvian or Mexican, I’m ethnically Chinese but have medium-dark skin. Not exactly the stereotypical Gringa look. There was constant cat-calling but hey, that happens plenty in NYC too.
    Unfortunate that it was exhausting for others but it was a smooth ride for me.

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      Great to hear back from you and, apart from the heat and food, you had a great trip! I never experienced the catcalling, most likely because I was with Craig but yes, experienced it in Nicaragua a lot and it drove me mad. Men holding their son’s hands to take them to school and thinking it was cool to shout ‘hey mammy’ at me while I walked to the gym. No thanks, pal!

  12. For those of you who dove in Cuba. We’re going at Christmas to Cienfuegos to dive with whale sharks, and then to snorkel with our kids. I cannot find prices anywhere and want to have enough money to cover everything. Any information on costs of renting snorkel gear for multiple days/diving costs in Cienfuegos over the Christmas-New Years break would be SO APPRECIATED!!!!

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  13. The cigar festival and salsa festival scams are so common. My husband and I were approached multiple times during our week in Havana. We were also followed by a guy after leaving our hotel on our first day in the city. About 15-20 minutes into our walk, I stopped to take some photos and this guy walked up to us and said, “Hi, I’m Roberto, your security guard at the Capri Hotel. I saw you in the lobby last night.” Then he went on to say that there was a cigar festival at a co-operative place a few blocks away and he offered to take us there. This was the first time we heard about the ‘cigar festival’ and we actually believed him, but we weren’t really interested in buying more cigars so we politely declined. It was only when we got to the city centre and more people started approaching us about the cigar festival that we started to get a bit suspicious. When we returned to the hotel later that day, we asked the security guard on duty if there was a Roberto working there, and surprise surprise, he didn’t exist.

    However, we never really felt harassed or intimidated while we were in Havana. Once we said no, the scammers left us alone – they just wished us a good day and moved on!

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      Totally agree! That’s what I mean, you don’t feel unsafe but it is best being armed with the scams before you touchdown.

      1. Oh, I’ve just realised that nobody else mentioned the salsa festival scam in this post. Many locals walked up to us, started a friendly conversation with the usual ‘Where are you from?’ and then told us that there’s a salsa festival not so far away. Thankfully, we never really got to find out what this ‘festival’ was really like, but I read later that they would normally take you to a salsa class in some dodgy place and then you’d have to pay for it.

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          We can go a step worse! An older gent we were socialising with ended up paying a female ‘friend’ money for educational classes. He said he didn’t care as it was part of the banter. Did you enjoy your trip anyway?

  14. Hi Gemma,

    we’re off to Cuba next month for 2-weeks over my birthday.

    We’re taking the Viazul bus from Havana to Vinales where we stay in Pinar del Rio for a few nights, then back to Havana for a few nights and further to Santa Clara for a few nights, before heading back to Havana to fly home. So I guess we saved some money here.

    In regards to Casa’s though, the prices seem to have gone up a lot as we pay between 40-80 a night excluding breakfast and booked via Expedia or Booking.com, maybe we’ve just reserved rooms too late?

    Also we booked excursions directly via the Casa’s as I thought they will know better and get us the best possible price but we pay between 50-120 per day for trips i.e. 50.- for a trip from Pinar del Rio to a Crocodile Farm near Playa Bailen and then to Finca Hector Luis Prieto which is a Tobacco Farm. Or 120.- for a trip from Santa Clara to Trinidad and Cienfuegos. All trips are done via a taxi in a vintage car but from reading the comments here it seems a lot now.

    Do you think we’re getting scammed before even being there?

    Furthermore do you have any tips and tricks for the cities we’re visiting?

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      Great to hear from you, Monique.

      We never booked any casa before we went so can’t comment on casas via search engines. You can read our guide to casas here.

      Lots of tips, here’s our Cuba travel guide that links out to all of our posts.

      Let me know how you get on please.

  15. Fabulous article! I am leaving tonight with my wife for 10 days in Cuba. I find the angry comments ridiculous when you are exposing a reality of travelling. We avoid a one of them in Thailand because we read about them. Thanks

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      I know Andreas, just wanting to give people a heads up so they can enjoy a break they’ve most likely saved up for! Have a great one, it’s an interesting country. Come back and let me know how you get on, please.

  16. The “milk scam” might also include other items. I was in Havana in 2016 with another female traveller and we were searching for somewhere to buy water (in July, very hot!). A very friendly woman approached and took us to a store to buy it. While we were buying the water she asked if we could buy her a bottle of cooking oil for her family. We said “sure”! She led us to a counter on the other side of the store, a clerk passed her a huge grocery bag full of items and she disappeared. Leaving us with the approx. $40 (CDN) bill. Live and learn.

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      Oh crap! Thanks for updating us. Live in learn indeed! I was ripped off by the note scam in Istanbul last year. My friend calls it a ‘first day tax’ which made me laugh. I did hide in my room for a couple of hours after the ordeal though. You know when you know something isn’t quite right and before you know it you are saying – OK, I’m going to call the police if you don’t let me out. Did you have a good time in Cuba regardless?

  17. Fantastic article! Just come back from Havana and experienced most of these scams . We luckily caught on to what was happening.

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  18. Great article! A relative of mine, who was staying at a resort, experienced a “gentle hustle” when a Cuban approached her and her husband on the street and greeted her warmly saying he recognized her from resort x, where he said he worked. He offered to take them to a restaurant – they ended up buying lunch and rum there, which was not their intention. Part way through the encounter she realized the guy was definitely not from the resort where she was staying. They were wearing wrist bands that were easily identifiable by the locals. So, some tourists turn wrist bands inside out when they leave the resort.

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      That’s such a useful tip, thank you Catherine. I like your description of ‘gentle hustle’ – it’s fitting!

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