Stay Safe in Cuba
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and extensive policing, coupled with neighbourhood watch groups (known as the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, or C.D.R.) generally keeps the streets free of violent crime.
Drug laws can be harsh and their enforcement unpredictable. The same applies to laws on prostitution. The importation, possession or production of pornographic material is strictly prohibited. It is not uncommon to see a dog jogging on the baggage carousel to sniff out incoming luggage, especially if it comes from countries prone to drug trafficking. Please ensure that you lock and/or pack your luggage to avoid any problems in this regard.
Tourists are generally advised not to get involved in the following three areas: Politics, drugs and pornography/prostitution. There is relatively little tolerance for public comments against the revolution, Fidel, Che, etc. It is advisable to refrain from such comments.
Women get a lot of attention from men, especially outside the more touristy centre of Havana. Avoid cleavage and short skirts to reduce attention, but not to prevent it. Don’t be irritated by whistles or hisses, as Cuban women often recognise and appreciate this attention. However, if they do it too enthusiastically, they are likely to encourage the men.
Scams in Cuba
Cuba is a country of scams so widespread that they surprise even experienced travellers:
- Renting a car in Cuba requires your attention to every CUC you pay. One of the reported scams is the cost of insurance, which is quite expensive as you may end up paying double the actual cost. The price of insurance depends only on the car model, but the employee can start by explaining the difference between two or three types of policies at different costs (for the same category of vehicle). Of course, the most expensive one has full coverage (except for radio and tyre theft). This is the scam! If you choose the most expensive option, you will be told that it is not possible to pay the full amount by credit card. However, it is possible to pay part of it by credit card (exactly the cost of the cheapest option) and pay the difference in cash. You will not receive a receipt and this amount will not appear on the rental contract. This is the exact amount the scammer takes from you. Remember: there is only one type of insurance that covers everything (except radio and tyres) and the price only varies depending on the type of car.
- Discount cigars of genuine appearance and dubious authenticity are offered by street traders. These are often genuine pieces that have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and sold at a much lower price than legal, taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish authentic cigars, you should only buy from official cigar sellers. The best people to buy untaxed (illegal but genuine) cigars are usually hotel porters who will not be offended if you ask them “if they know where to find cheap cigars” and who can direct you to a room in the hotel that is used for this purpose. If you buy untaxed cigars, you should not pay more than 50 CUC for a box of 25 Esplendidos (usually about ten times cheaper than taxed cigars). Make sure that the box you buy is opened to prove that it actually contains cigars. There are often stickers attached that you can use to seal the box as if it had been taxed. Customs may confiscate them on departure, but this is highly unlikely if you are carrying less than 50 cigars. If you are transporting more, you will have to divide them among the members of your group. As the sale of stolen or factory-collected untaxed cigars is illegal, and locals are often short of cash outside the peak tourist season, it is possible to haggle prices very low, but as the salary of a typical hotel employee can be the equivalent of USD 20 per month, this may seem unfair.
- Friendly” locals invite tourists to bars for a drink (usually a mojito) or to a restaurant; the tourist has to pay two or three times the normal price and the loot is shared between the establishment and the “friend”. In central Havana, a young man or a couple of locals, under the pretext of practising English, invite tourists to attend a show by the “Buena Vista Social Club” (no, most of the members of the BVSC are deceased and the group has not performed in Havana for many years), while suggesting that they go to a nearby bar and have a drink while waiting for the show to start. Some locals even shamelessly ask for a few CUC for their company.
- ALWAYS negotiate the price in advance, especially for taxis. Clarify the price 101% before making a deal, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. It is not uncommon to arrive at your destination in a taxi and be charged much more than agreed under the pretext of a misunderstanding. For example, 25 CUC instead of 5 CUC. The advice is to write the price on a piece of paper and show it to the person.
- Change money in bars or taxis or give change in national pesos (CUP) for convertible pesos (CUC). Or offer to exchange 3 or more CUCs for a “special edition” 3-peso coin with a picture of Che Guevara (the exchange is from one CUC to one CUP, which is worth about 20 times less). Unfortunately, unlike banknotes, convertible coins are not marked as such. Familiarise yourself with the coins as soon as you get them from the bank or CADECA – the ones with a big star or Che Guevara on one side are all national pesos.
- Water is often sold in tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water and resealed (which can be toxic). You can usually see this change on the bottle, but not always. In any case, tap water tastes very different from bottled water and should be avoided at all costs. If in doubt, throw the water away. In fact, real bottled water (the same goes for canned soft drinks) is a luxury, even for locals, and costs in national pesos (about 10 CUP) or convertibles (about 0.45 CUC) in shops, both local and tourist – if you find one too cheap, it’s probably too good to be true.
- The locals offer to exchange money at a “local bank” where the locals can get the best rates and ask you to stay outside while they make the exchange, as your presence will drive up the rate. If you give them your money, you will never see them again.
- Credit card fraud is widespread, so withdrawals should only be made at reputable hotels or banks. Ideally, carry cash with you. US dollars, euros and pounds sterling are accepted almost everywhere (in order of popularity), although it is illegal to spend them.
- In Havana, it is important to always be careful when handling money. If you take a taxi, ask someone familiar with the system what the approximate fare is, as many drivers try to set an artificially high price before they leave. If in doubt, insist that they use the meter. You can be pretty sure that any given fare from the airport will be at least 5-10 CUC higher than it should be – insist on the meter.
- Salespeople have been known to take advantage of strangers when it comes to giving change (if in doubt, watch what other customers are doing before you make your purchase) :
- Some are known not to give change and continue serving the next customer, assuming that the tourist will not speak enough Spanish to ask questions.
- Some take advantage of the ambiguity as to whether published prices are in CUC or CUP, and many sellers take CUC when CUP is due and pocket the difference without pointing out your mistake.
- Some also give change in the wrong currency and therefore give too little change (e.g. they give change for 3 UPCs instead of 3 CUCs).
- Some also try to return large sums in CUP instead of CUC, which can leave a foreigner stuck with a currency they cannot exchange back into a foreign currency. This may seem like an inconvenience at first glance, but in reality it is often a scam. Cubans often give change at the rate of 20 CUP to 1 CUC, but the ratio is actually closer to 25 CUP to 1 CUC. So if you pay 5 CUC for an item costing 20 CUC and receive 20 CUP in change for 1 CUC (i.e. 80 CUP), the person giving the change will collect an additional 25 CUP, which is the equivalent of 1 CUC; in fact, this scam can cost you more than double that.
- Credit card fraud is widespread. Don’t let your credit card slip out of your hands and watch the clerk swipe the card through the machine. If something seems strange, DO NOT sign! Merchants in small shops may take your card to a neighbouring bank counter and use it for a cash advance. Look carefully at your receipts. If the receipt says “Venta” and an amount in dollars or CUC, it means it is a cash advance (retained by dishonest staff). However, credit card payment options in shops are usually so limited or non-existent that it is common and more convenient to pay cash.
- Employees often exchange genuine products, such as rum and cigars, for counterfeit products found under the counter or in a storage room.
- Jineteros/Jineteras are a problem in the bigger cities and will try to sell tourists anything, including restaurants, cigars, sex and drugs. Note that this type of solicitation is illegal in Cuba and most will leave you alone if you ignore them or politely say no for fear of the police. If you find yourself in a situation with a more intransigent jinetero, tell them you’ve been in the country for a few weeks, that you’re a student or from a third world country (of which you can pass as a citizen if you’re white; Brazil usually works as it’s a non-Spanish speaking country, Russia is another good example; Vietnam or Thailand works well if you’re East Asian) and they’ll probably leave you alone. Many rely on tourists who are unfamiliar with the system and comparatively wealthy, so ideally you should try to make an impression elsewhere. Bear in mind that even if a tout only steals a few CUCs a day from unsuspecting tourists, he is likely to earn as much as a doctor’s monthly salary in a week or two.
Stay Healthy in Cuba
Cuba is considered very healthy, except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. Nevertheless, some travellers drink untreated water without suffering. It is best to drink bottled water, and plenty of it, especially for visitors not used to temperatures above 30°C/85°F. Bottled water (agua de botella) is readily available and costs between 0.65 and 2 CUC for a 1.5-litre bottle, depending on the shop. It should be noted that the mineral content (total dissolved solids) of bottled water is quite high compared to other countries. So if you are planning a longer stay in Cuba (e.g. as a student or with a work permit), it may be worthwhile to bring a small jug or sports bottle with a water filter and some cartridges to further purify the water.
Cuban milk is usually not pasteurised and can make visitors sick. Also, tourists should be careful with vegetables that have been washed in tap water. Despite these warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and there is no reason to be paranoid.
The island is tropical and therefore hosts a number of diseases. Some recommend an aggressive vaccination schedule when planning a trip to Cuba, but most travellers arrive with little or no vaccination protection. Hepatitis B and tetanus vaccinations are recommended by most travel clinics. Hepatitis B is usually transmitted through direct blood contact or sexual contact. The vaccination course requires three injections over several weeks, followed by a blood test to determine if the treatment has been effective; shorter courses are available. (Interestingly, the hepatitis B vaccine is actually produced in Cuba for worldwide use). In general, immunisation against tetanus is more important because tetanus is a risk with any wound or cut, especially a dirty, contaminated wound.
The HIV/AIDS infection rate is less than 0.1 per cent. However, as always, you should exercise caution and ensure that you or your partner wear a condom if you engage in sexual activity while in Cuba.
Cuba has one of the highest per capita numbers of doctors in the world (about one doctor per 170 inhabitants), making doctors readily available in much of the island. Your hotel reception should be able to direct you to the nearest doctor (in fact, doctors are so numerous in Cuba that it is not uncommon to see doctors selling paintings, books or other works of art to tourists at the flea market to earn money to supplement their meagre salaries).
However, certain medicines are often difficult to find. It is highly recommended to stock up on over-the-counter medicines before travelling to Cuba, as pharmacies do not stock many medicines you would expect as a Westerner, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and Immodium. Do not try to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. There is also a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners in Havana that offers an extremely fast service.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to find and expensive, so stock up before you travel.
The big cities – especially Havana – have very polluted air because of the old cars and factories. This can cause breathing problems for some visitors.
Telephone numbers of police, fire brigade and doctors
The emergency number in Cuba is 106.