Cuba is a lovely country with wonderful people, most of them are helpful and happy to chat. But due to the situation in the country, most people are used to having a way of getting by that is somewhat unusual from a European or North American perspective. Let me give you an example: A person that works in a factory, for instance, makes around 500 MN (CUP) a month, that is roughly 20 USD. Almost nobody in Cuba can get by with that salary. So that is why people invent something else. Mostly they make a living on reselling something or using some kind craft, rent to foreigners, etc.. And among all those ways to earn money, this is called Busqueda here, some choose to take easy money from foreigners.
Of course, that is not the most elegant or honest way to get some extra money, but well it exists. So let me state one thing here: I support local in Cuba 100%, meaning working with people directly and supporting many forms of “Busqueda”. And although I understand why people like to scam I am not a big fan of it, there are other ways.
So having that said, let’s clear the fog and give you some insights on what popular scams in Cuba look like and how you can avoid them. Also, keep in mind: not everybody wants to scam you! Those scams usually just pop up in busy tourist areas like Trinidad or Habana Vieja. I do encourage you to interact with locals and swap stories with them. You will make great friends and get real insides on Cuba and life here.
But let’s get you prepared:
The Milk Scam
This is one of the most famous scams, that has survived over many years. It works the following way: someone stops a tourist on the street and starts talking about this and that. At one point in the conversation, they will start talking about their kid and how they cannot afford milk. They will tell a sad story on the milk is too expensive and convince the tourist to buy some for them. Then they will take him or her to a closed shop (bodega). A shop where locals usually buy with the food rations by the government. There they will call someone to open and asks the tourist to buy 2 packets of milk for the child. The price will be extremely high (around 10-20 CUC). Then tourist buys the milk and walks away. After that, the scammer will return the milk and share the money with the shop tenant.
I am not saying people are getting enough milk for the kids and it might get tight sometimes. But those are usually not the ones asking you for it and taking you to a hidden store. So if you want to test them take them to a store you choose and pay not more than 2 CUC, even that is a lot in case you buy in a Bodega. In a regular supermarket, the price could be around 2,50 for one pack.
You can also choose to walk away and let the scammers try their luck with someone else.
The CUC for CUP
You will have read about the two currencies in Cuba. That is one thing that comes in handy for a scam sometimes. So you will see a lot of people who try to charge you something in CUC even though the price is stated in CUP. You can pay with both currencies, you just have to calculate the change (ca. 1CUC = 25CUP) if someone wants to charge you 30 CUC for a dish in a small cafeteria you can be sure that the person tries to get some money there. Here as well the best advice is to turn on common sense.
The Cigar Scam
Cuba is famous for its cigars, and there is a lot of demand for them. You can buy them in an official store or on the somewhat grey market to get a better price. But when it comes to purchasing cigars from a local, you should take someone with you that knows the seller and about the quality of cigars. Unless you are an expert yourself. Make sure to smoke one and test them before you buy as sometimes they can be false.
The “ We Know a Really Nice Restaurant” Scam
This is not really a scam, but a way of earning a lot of commission from a restaurant people would usually not eat in. In Havana, you can see them a lot in the tourist Habana Vieja. Especially close to the Museo de la Revolución This scam works the following way: Usually, a couple walks up to the tourist (mostly also a couple) and asks for a lighter. No matter if the tourist has one or not they start chatting. They usually begin asking about the country one is from, and then after a little talk, it happens to be lunch time, time for a drink or whatever.
They will suggest taking the tourist to a restaurant to keep talking. Then they will take them to a place that serves lousy food highly overpriced to get some commission. Now you decide if you want to join them or not.
I am not saying go out with a person you meet randomly. Au counterair! It can be great fun and really enlightening. Just keep your eyes open and turn on common sense and you will be fine. You can always ask your hosts for advice or connect with people via couch surfing or other platforms. It also depends a bit on where and how you meet people and choose to go out with them. You should, however, take care of the bill, as it is not too easy to have many nights out on a local salary. Also, keep in mind that everybody is just trying to get by somehow. But also, in this case, the people who need it the most are usually not the one who ask or they do it more delicately.
This post is just meant as some insight to popular scams. They are getting less and less, and you should never ever assume that every Cuban wants to scam you. That is not remotely true. The Locals are open and friendly and usually they really just want to be nice. So just turn on common sense and have a great time in Cuba.