Cuba is an amazing country, and I always recommend visiting it.
I have travelled widely through it and what I have learned the hard way is that it is almost pointless to make any detailed plans in Cuba. For as much as one may try to go to a specific off the beaten path place, a combination of lack of public transportation, lack of infrastructure (places to stay and booking systems that are still scarcely used) and the reluctance of taxi drivers (who either say a straight no to the request, or shoot exuberant prices) to get there will work as a deterrent.
I hardly believe the predictions that Cuba will change dramatically with the newly established relations with the US and I seriously doubt that it will become a tourist trap as a consequence.
In many ways, Cuba already is a tourist trap. American tourists may be few, but there are hordes of people coming from the rest of the world. And it can be difficult, if not impossible, to access the less touristic places, just as on the other hand it is easy to fall for scams. Indeed, the vast majority of Cubans see foreigners as walking money and think that if they can afford to travel (no questions asked on their lifestyle or how many sacrifices they have gone through to afford that vacation) it surely is fair to ease them of a few dollars.
During my travels in Cuba I have been able to observe some of the most common ways used by the locals to attract tourists into their traps.
Thus, based on my experience, here’s a few scam alerts to help travellers save some pennies:
Scam technique # 1: “Today it’s my birthday / My dad just died”.
How likely is it to randomly meet not one, not two, but a whopping number of persons that celebrate their birthday on the same day or whose father has, sadly, passed away? Apparently very likely, in Cuba. These scam technique aims at inducing pity and making the tourist feel so ashamed that, just to feel a bit better about himself, he will want to make an offer. If in the majority of the world the typical birthday celebration would be a party to which one invites his friends and family, oddly enough in Cuba it seems to be a dinner or a drink offered by a recently met tourist, in a restaurant the birthday boy has picked. This is a very easy trick to get tourists to a specific restaurant, have them pay double or triple what a similar meal may be worth in a different (and better) restaurant, get a commission and a freebie too. If someone claims it’s his birthday or someone in his family has just died, give them the best wishes or condolences and walk away.
Scam technique # 2: “I will invite you for a drink/meal”.
Both aim at getting tourists to a specific place in order to get a commission, and are convincing in that anybody unaware may find it sweet to be invited by a local. The sad truth is that there is (almost) no way that anybody will invite a tourist to anything in Cuba. If a tourist happens at a private home and is invited for dinner, he should be prepared to be served just as if he were in a restaurant and to be presented with a bill at the end of the meal. The best thing to do in this case is to politely refuse with a good excuse (“I already have commitments” usually works), and leave.
Scam technique # 3: “I am not like all other Cubans”.
There are times when, even in Cuba, conversation actually gets interesting – genuinely so. The locals involved will seem truly interested in what the tourist has to say. In fact, they will seem helpful, kind and resourceful. Come to think of it, the typical scene involves stopping the tourist in the street when this one is looking a bit lost, asking all the right questions (“where are you from?” is a good ice breaker that allows to show off language skills), and then offering help to take the unaware tourist to the place he’s looking for (wait, that is likely to be closed – check scam technique # 5 for more details), reassuring him by saying “I’m not like all other Cubans”. That very simple, seemingly harmless sentence should send the tourist flying as quickly as possible. In fact, it can easily be finished with a “I am much worse than the rest”.
The rest of the scam (getting invited to then have to pay, etc) usually follows. The best way to get out of it is situation is to be as vague as possible with regards to the upcoming plans (in terms of restaurant choice for example) and to politely but firmly refuse help. If nothing works, going back to the casa particular (home stay) is a good move that discourages anybody.
Scam technique # 4: “That business has just closed”.
It is very common, in Cuba, to make reservations for a casa particular via phone, to then get off the bus one or two days later and be told by someone right outside the bus station or even in the very street where the casa is located that the owner has just passed away and the casa is thus closed. Inevitably, such a warning will turn into a suggestion to stay at a different place which – come to think of it – is just in the same direction the person who’s reported on the sad news is going. This is yet another sneaky attempt to steer customers away from a business and send them in the direction of another one, for the sake of getting a commission. The best way to get out of these scam is to have the phone number of the booked casa at hand, to call the owners and check, and in any case to stand one’s ground firmly and refuse any offer of help.
Scam technique # 5: “The bus is full/not leaving today”.
Whenever walking to a bus station, tourists in Cuba will find an array of taxi drivers ready to offer their services. The most common thing they would say to attract customers is that the bus is not leaving that day, or that there are no more seats available (even when one may already have bought the ticket). The offer of a (very expensive) taxi ride would follow. To avoid this scam, it is a good measure to walk past the taxi drivers into the station and ask directly at the counter whether the bus is leaving and, if getting a taxi may be an option, using the price of the bus ride to haggle a better one for the taxi ride.