Scammed in Cuba

by Female Abroad

I always thought of myself as a savvy traveller and that scams would be obvious. Well it turns out scams are obvious but when you feel bad for people you just kinda go along with it.... that is how I found myself following a strange man and his "daughter" down a dark alley but before I get too far into the story, lets start with how I got here.

As I'm sure you have read already in my other posts on Cuba and in my travel journal (if not then make sure you do!), Cuba is not exactly the most financially stable country. Most doctors quit the profession and getting to the hospitality business because they can make more in tips in one night than they can doing their government job for a month. Considering how hard some of these scam artists work for just a few cents to us (which makes a huge difference for them) I didn't feel bad for giving them money. On top of that, it was a very cheap cultural experience plus I got to see first hand how these scams work.

These scams were easy to see from a mile away but I played into them as I knew that at least my money was safe and I went into it knowing that I was being scammed. Which is a weird way to look at it but hey, when you want to tell people about how not to be scammed / what to look for what better way then for it to happen to you?

Scam #1: "Let me show you"

While out walking through Havana, we were just about to head back to the Air BnB when the hubby decided to turn down one street further than we had planned. Not one to argue at a longer walk I went along with it. Just as we turned down the street, a gentleman and his "daughter" (both looked to be mid-thirties / early fourties) asked if we were lost. He seemed surprised when I said no and we started to walk away. In his very best broken English, he asked if we wanted to learn salsa, yet another no from us. That is when he asked if we were looking for a bar. We were not but he knew the best one that the locals go to nearby; the El Florida. Since this guy was not giving up on trying to help us (plus he really hated American's so he was extremely excited when we said we were Canadian) we stopped to listen to his directions. As his English was not very strong he just told us to follow him the three blocks. That's when the feeling that this was a scam started ringing in my head but I went with it; dragging an unhappy hubby along.

Between his broken English and my high school level Spanish I was able to learn that he is a teacher at the local high school (not sure which subject) and then in his free time he teaches salsa dancing in one of the local squares. Saturday's were his busiest days with the locals joining in on thee dancing fun. The woman with him was his only daughter and it rains a lot this time of year. That's when he said we had one more block to go, just as teens started kick boxing right in the middle of the street. If this hadn't been Havana (boxing is huge here and there are a lot of rings) then I may have been wondering where the f**k he was taking us but at this moment in time I also realized that the El Florida he was taking us to was not the one that I had seen just off the Malecon. This one was a lot further inland so I did start to get worried. The fighting really made the hubs want to grab me and GTFO but he saw that I was calm and went with it.

After turning the corner, it was up a set of stairs and we were in someone's living room even though the sign outside clearly stated this was a bar. A gentleman came out of a hallway, opened a door, and then we were in an actual bar with a patio that overlooked the street. The whole room was decorated in random items from the 50's and earlier (type writers, sewing machines, radio's, etc) and the walls from 5 feet and below were covered in names as well as places from people that had visited. Seeing all the names made us calmer as we were the only people here besides the man, his aged daughter, and the "bartender". Taking a seat, the man asked if we would buy him a drink. I obliged and we continued our forced, misunderstood conversation while the bartender got the hubs a beer, me and the man a mojito, and the man's daughter a virgin mojito. I couldn't taste any booze and I was glad when the beer was popped in front of the hubby or else I would have stopped drinking my drink just in case.

As our drinks were almost at the bottom, the gentleman just blasted me with full sentences in Spanish. I told him that I don't understand and asked him to speak slower. He did and I caught Vancouver so I thought he was asking about what it was like so I tried in what little Spanish I had that it was pretty. He then said "leche" which I thought was weird. So I told him we had milk in Vancouver in cartons ("leche" means milk) but once he realized that I didn't know what he was saying, he said in English "You buy my daughter milk?". I quickly said that we don't have money to do that and we leave tomorrow so we can't get more. He understood that and I then asked for the bill from the bartender.

For 1 beer, 2 mojitos, and 1 virgin mojito it came to 18 CUC which is higher than the price we've been paying at the Casa Particulars but it wasn't a large inflation. Luckily I had snuck a bill out of my purse earlier so when I handed it to the bartender, the gentleman was not sure where it came from. When the bartender came back and asked for 1 CUC as he only had a 3 CUC bill, I pulled out my change purse (I keep it separate from my bills) and dug through the small coinage to make 1 CUC while the gentleman watched. I then put the 3 CUC note in to my change purse. This way the gentleman saw that we didn't have any more money. As we were leaving, he said his daughter was looking for the bathroom so we waived and left. We figured that in actuality they were splitting the money as we had over paid and on top of that I had paid for drinks that contained no booze so there was the markup on that as well.

Scam #2: "Picture"

In the first picture on this post you can see me with a dark gentleman. The hubs and I were taking selfies when this camera holding guy came over and posted with me while the hubby took photos and then he posed with him while I took photos. Normally these people I just say no and flat out refuse but it was pouring rain, no one else was up there, and I had some small change I could throw his way. I made his day and we got some funny photos out of it. No harm, no foul.

Scam #3: "No change"

When heading out of town, into the smaller villages there were a lot of places that couldn't break a CUC as they used CUP. Since we didn't have any CUP we weren't able to buy certain things. That didn't mean the local's didn't try though. Now keep in mind that a CUP and a CUC are two completely different monetary systems with different values. The CUC is worth more of course so not only do you have to be worried that they will give you CUP for change instead of CUC (check your change!) they will try to tell you they don't have change for your CUC but they will take it at face value. Since I was well aware of the difference, this wasn't one scam that I was going to be falling for so when they would offer to take it at face value I would just say no and thank them for their time. Normally when they realized they were going to lose a sale, they would magically find change for the CUC in CUC. Funny how that works out....

Even after the scamming and attempted scamming the majority of people in Havana and the area surrounding were wonderful. They were very friendly all tried their best to speak English (most said they liked the practice) so they can learn more about where you come from. You have to remember that things are still very controlled; most of the information some of these people get are from visitors. Just remember, you are in a country that believes fully in their leader so make sure not to put him down or else the conversation will end abruptly or you can make it uncomfortable (to put it nicely) for yourself.