How to Avoid Getting Hustled in Cuba

Avoid scams in Cuba
Avoid scams in Cuba | © Paul Falardeau/Flickr
Jack Guy

Although most Cubans will be friendly, sincere and helpful, some unscrupulous people will try to get money out of tourists in dishonest ways. Their tactics go from harmless ways to charge a couple more dollars over the real price of a product, to more serious scams that could cost you a few hundred dollars. Culture Trip has compiled this list of situations to be wary of.

Cheap – and very fake – Cuban cigars

Near the main cigar factories and tourist areas you may be approached by people who will introduce themselves as factory workers, and will offer you the same cigar boxes that are sold at the factory’s official store for a lower price.

Cuban cigars: don’t be fooled by the fakes

It’s true that factory workers receive a daily allowance of cigars – usually two – for their own consumption, and it’s not uncommon that they sell them. But anyone trying to sell fake cigars will claim that they are only allowed to sell the boxes before a given date or day of the week, which conveniently will be that very day they found you. You will need to make up your mind fast, they’ll tell you, because their too-good-to-be-true offer expires at 5PM.

If you agree, you will be taken to a nearby house where they will show you their products. Now, unless you are some kind of Cuban cigar connoisseur, this story will end up with you buying fake Cuban cigars. In the best of cases, you will buy cigars rolled from bad quality tobacco leaves (that you’ll be able to smoke), but there’s been cases of people who’ve been sold cigars made of dry banana tree leaves and even dyed paper.

Tips: If you want to buy a few cigars from people in the street, that’s fine, but don’t buy an entire box from a stranger. Also, like anywhere else in the world, it’s not advisable to follow these people through alleys and into houses, out of sight of security cameras. Buy cigar boxes at official stores.

The helpful kidnapper of your valuables

Some people will keep an eye on tourists waiting for an opportunity to take hold of valuables, and then charge a ransom for its recovery. If you lose your bag or designer sunglasses in a public place, or if you get drunk and can’t remember where you left your phone, it’s possible that someone will approach you saying they can help you find it.

These good Samaritans will tell you that they know the person who, by chance, “found” your things, will describe how much this person wants to give the stuff back because of course he/she is very honest, but has a hard economic situation and could use some help. The character can be a single mother whose daughter is very sick at the hospital, or an old man in a wheelchair, or any other heartbreaking fantasy.

Keep hold of your valuables

Rather than selling stolen goods on the black market – which is also an option for some – these people will try to re-sell items back to the most likely customer – you – especially if the objects in question are more valuable to you than to anyone else, such as personal documents, or something of obvious sentimental value. Ransoms can cost from $20 to $100, depending on the object.

Tips: Be especially careful with your belongings at all times, even in the common areas of hotels, and don’t carry anything of value if you are planning to drink a lot. Whether you want to enter negotiations with these people or not is up to you and will depend on your interest in recovering your property. If you agree to it, make sure you get your stuff back before giving anyone any money. Normally this won’t go any further, because the priority of these people is getting cash out of you, but you can always go to the police if you think things are getting out of control.

The friendly stalker

A jinetero is a type of hustler, generally male, who makes a living going from tourist to tourist offering guidance and street connections. Depending on the target – a woman, two women, a man, a married couple, etc – they will offer a variety of (sometimes illegal) products including cigars, drugs, prostitutes, or their own sexual services.

They will first approach you in the street trying to guess your nationality: “My frien’, whereareyoufrom?” Some of them have been doing this for so long that you’ll be surprised how fast they figure out where you are actually from – most likely in the first three guesses.

Beware of the jinetero

If you don’t ignore them – and this is the critical moment when you should – you’ll find yourself with permanent company for the rest of your stay, paying for all their drinks and meals at the bars and restaurants they are helping you to discover, buying stuff from them at a price that covers their personal commission, and having a really hard time getting rid of them.

Tips: If you want a guide to show you Havana, try to hire someone in advance. There are plenty of professional guides, or even university students looking for part-time jobs, who will do a better, more honest job. The average wage in Cuba is very low – some $25 dollars a month – so it’s fine if you want to invite your guide to a drink or lunch, but avoid having to do that all the time for a clingy stranger who does not, or at least pretends not to understand limits.

The vague/distracted clerk: CUC vs CUP

If you don’t take a minute to understand the Cuban currency system you may end up paying 24 times the price of products and services. There are two currencies in the country: CUban Convertible (hard currency) and CUban Pesos. One CUC = 24 CUP. Some places will only accept one or the other, but most will accept both types of currency, making the appropriate conversions.

However, some clerks at establishments dealing in CUP will take advantage of tourists not knowing the difference to charge five CUC for something that costs only five CUP. It would be the same as being charged US$5 for something worth 20 cents.

Understand the difference between Cuban Convertible and Cuban Pesos

The card up their sleeve is the vagueness of the way in which people refer to “pesos” in Cuba, which can mean either CUC or CUP to Cubans, because they will be able to infer the type of currency based on their knowledge of the context and the going rates.

So a clerk can tell you a ham sandwich costs five pesos. If you hand over CUC – the more valuable currency – when the sandwich is worth five CUP, the clerk could appear “distracted” and “overlook” your mistake. By vaguely naming the price in pesos, they technically haven’t lied to you.

Tips: The colloquial way for Cubans to differentiate between the two currencies is “pesos cubanos” (CUP) and “pesos convertibles” (CUC). If in doubt, ask the clerk which one they mean.

The incompetent cashier

Although not in every establishment, you will find a few places in Cuba – mainly restaurants, bars, and stores – where the cashier will make all kinds of mistakes when calculating your bill to cheat money out of you.

Here’s a few common “mistakes”:

Your tab includes all the right items, but you have been charged in CUC instead of CUP

Your tab includes items that you did not order, like a bottle of water, a drink, a pack of cigarettes

Your tab includes only items that you ordered, but in the wrong quantities, for example three beers when you only had two

Your tab includes all the right items and all the right prices, but the total does not add up

And if they see that you drank too much and think that you won’t notice, all kinds of combinations of the above

Tips: If you don’t want to pay more than you should, check your tab before paying, or keep a running total as you order.

Remember to add up your check

Petty thieves

There are also many minor tricks to squeeze a few dollars out of you. Some people will try to sell you three peso coins and bills with the image of Che Guevara for a couple of dollars when they are worth 15 cents. They are not true collectibles, but common Cuban money still in circulation.

From street guides who will make up all kinds of stories about supposedly historic places, to clerks who will sell you recycled, non-sealed bottles of water filled from the tap, the list of scammers is long. Just be careful in general, and don’t be too nice to friendly strangers.

The bag of milk scam

Few people can resist the urge to help out a hungry child, but in Cuba there have been reports that all is not as it seems in certain cases. The first scammer, usually a young woman with baby in arms, approaches tourists in the street asking for money for some milk powder.

After the obliging tourist walks into a convenient shop nearby and is quoted an inflated price for a product that they have likely never bought on the island before, the shopkeeper splits the money with the woman before the milk is placed right back on the shelf where it came from.

New “friends”

While young jineteros might be enough to put many tourists on their guard, there seems to be something more confidence-inspiring about young couples. You might not meet them on the street, but already inside a bar.

After you get talking, they’ll offer to show you a trendy little place around the corner. Only when the bill arrives in the new place will you realise that you’ve been wildly overcharged. And of course by that point you’ve already finished your drink, so there isn’t much you can do.

Sorry, no change

While not strictly a scam, this is a popular way to get a bit more money out of visitors. Traders will say they haven’t got any change, and you might be tempted to accept the new price if it’s hot or you’re in a hurry.

However if you say you’re going somewhere else for change, you might find that they suddenly find some. Obviously this doesn’t work when there aren’t any rival traders around, and there are occasions when there simply isn’t any change around, but be aware.

Fake cash

Changing money can mean long queues in Cuba, and enterprising locals have come up with a way to take advantage of the resulting impatience. If you’re in the queue, you might be approached by someone offering to change your money right there and then at a better rate.

While ideally you would save both time and money in such a transaction, you’ll more likely end up with worthless notes. Queue up like everyone else and do things properly.

Adulterated drinks

Tough times for many Cubans inspire a variety of questionable moneymaking schemes, and drinks aren’t immune. You might be offered bottles of water from street sellers in tourist areas, or a friendly local might sell you cheaper rum when the shops are closed.

They aren’t always bad services to have access to, but always check the bottles. There have been reports of bottles filled with tap water, which is very bad for your health, and rum bottles watered down or filled with inferior spirits.

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