Cuba is a socialist country and therefore a very safe tourist destination. But, I would say common sense precautions should be taken. Be aware of walking on dark streets at night. Purse snatching happens, so if you are a woman, don’t bring your handbag! Eating food on the street or from underground restaurants may be a healthy risk. It happened to me one time, when I came back to Canada with giardiasis. But this unpleasant incident didn’t change my love for Cuba. Theft happens; don’t leave anything of value in your hotel room. Lock the valuables in the safety box and other belongings in your suitcase.
I accepted a ride from the José Martí International Airport in Havana to my hotel from two men inside the airport. Their “taxi” was a very old, broken Lada soviet made car. Of course, no safety belt or taxi meter. The men were very friendly and smiling all the time, until they frown up. I knew the taxi ride fee from airport to hotel is $15, but my mistake was that I didn’t negotiate the ride with the driver before getting into the car. When I told them I pay $15 for the ride, we were in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, the men stopped smiling and insisted to pay $40, or they will let me out in the field. I said OK, I go out. Then, the car stopped. Then, the car started again, and we continued the ride to the hotel without the smiles. Lesson learnt!
In Havana you will often be approached by men offering to take you to one of the bars frequented by Hemingway. It is just a way for them to get a commission from overpriced drinks sold in bars located outside of the tourist area. Read more bellow.
One scam I learnt about after the fact. Strolling in Central Havana, I met a beggar in a wheelchair. He asked me to buy milk for his small children at home. A very friendly guy, and me having a soft heart I obliged. We have even taken photos together! What happens, the milk is sold at a bigger price. Later on, the guy will return the milk to the store, and they will share the difference in price. He invited me to, well, one of the Hemingway’s bars. The guy was too funny to refuse him, so we went through back streets, way away from the tourist area, to a sordid, small bar. Everything went fine, until I received the “bill”: a handwritten notice with the total inflated three times the regular price. Now, a mojito in the well-known Hemingway’s bars, Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita, costs $6 plus tips. In a bar for locals, outside the tourist area, the price for a mojito is $2 to $3. After arguing about the price and threatening to complain to police, I was asked for the hand written “bill” back in exchange for the mojitos being free…
I may very well have smoked some of these faked cigars. Even in Cuba the brand name cigars are expensive. Buying from the black market is a risk. Most of the cigars are faked, even if the packaging is original. Buy from the stores or direct from the “Partagas” factory in Havana.
From the country side is good value to buy cigars from the farms. Or you may ask for cigars your tour guide or your hotel staff and taxi drivers. But still, there is a risk. Better stick with the stores or farmers.
Walking alone on a deserted beach… A man is approaching me asking if I want “Mary Jay”. I wasn’t sure if “Mary Jay” is a “Mary” or, from the guy’s sign language – a brand of cigars I never heard about. So, I was intrigued to find out. He took me into the bushes. Another man with a big belly and no shirt was waiting. When I got near him, he took out from his underwear a small bag containing herbs. At that moment I knew what “Mary Jay” means… Since the story has a happy ending, I stop here. Never do this in a foreign country, especially in Cuba!
Be careful about talking politics in public, people are really afraid to speak out.
The air ticket from Toronto to Havana is expensive. An all-inclusive package makes more sense. But would give your freedom to stay “locked” in an all you can eat and all you can drink luxury style resort far away from the action of Havana? You can have both worlds: the beach and the city – by staying close to Havana at a small, all-inclusive hotel, such as Tropicoco.
Walking on a beach close to Havana I stumbled upon the ruins of a military base half buried in sand. There indeed was a sign “Keet (sic) Out, Military Zone”, but for me was a very interesting photographic subject. So I entered the zone. Complete desolation. And, surprise: in front of a dilapidated barrack sitting on a chair was an armed guard with a rifle. No time for a photo, just enough time to get out from the area…
For tourists, Cuba is not cheap. There are two currencies: one for the population CUP (Peso Cubano) or “moneda nacional” and one for the tourists: the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). US dollars and US issued credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. Pay your guide’s tips in CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) in private. Also if you buy artwork from street vendors, try to make the payment not too obvious. They are not allowed to receive payments in CUC or they need to report it.