Scams in Cuba
The sheer weirdness of Cuban hospitality
Cubans are supposed to be world famous for being very friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have met several people who have been invited over for a meal, coffee or what not by a Cuban family. Strangely, usually men, some of them hardly able to communicate in Spanish, but who somehow managed to become friends with the locals and were asked to stay for lunch. The same never happened to us – two girls traveling alone. Whether it was a drink we were having, a meal or anything else, we always had to pay full price and even when we were “invited,” it was in exchange of money.
Communication never was much of an issue when traveling. We had no problems with the language, and indeed we could easily chat with people. But overall, we did not find Cubans as hospitable as their reputation would let us imagine. And we faced several scams in Cuba, some more unnerving than others.
We had our first lesson of scams in Cuba in Havana, where we stayed at a casa particular recommended to us by some fellow Italians. We arrived there with a number of presents for the owners – earrings and a hair dye for the landlady, a book for the landlord, as well as stuff we were asked to carry over there. Imagine our shock when we found out we had been charged for the cup of tea we asked one morning, the very same cup of tea made with a teabag some friend from Italy had dropped/forgotten at the house. Sure, Cubans have to take whatever opportunity to make that extra buck (as my friend explained to me when I told her what happened to us in the very same house she recommended), but do they not get the value of reputation?
On a different occasion, in Santiago, we spotted the lady at the ticket counter of a museum varnishing her nails. As we smiled at her and showed appreciation for the colour, she offered to share the varnish. This was actually funny, but to be honest we were not ready to get our nails done there and then.
In Baracoa we found ourselves in troubles: a power shortage meant that we had no chance to withdraw money or exchange our euro before getting on the bus to Santiago and then Camaguey. We had to save as much as we could, so we decided to walk to the Viazul station and carry our suitcases, as we could not spare much for a bicitaxi. Trouble is that the conditions of the streets in Baracoa are not exactly great for walking around with a suitcase. A young fellow saw me having difficulties, and as he walked next to me offered to carry my suitcase. My first reaction was to thank him for the offer, but politely refuse as I had no money to spare because of the electricity shortage. To my surprise, he told me he was going to the station anyways, so I should not worry, he was glad to help! Oh bless. When we then walked into the station to get our tickets, the lady at the desk was drinking a deliciously smelling coffee. We could infuse ourself in the smell, and as she realised that, she offered a cup.
On an evening out in Cienfuegos, we decided to get a bicitaxi to enjoy the Malecon. We talked to our driver, and ended up inviting him a beer. I suppose this set the ground for one of the most unnerving tourist scams in Cuba. We became so good friends that, in the end, he suggested that on the day after he’d take us to the historical cemetery “en amistad” (friendship – ie for free). So much amistad indeed that, despite having agreed on a price to begin with and despite having given him a number of goodies for his girlfriend and having paid him more than we had agreed, he demanded even more money and was about to yell at us when we refused to pay him more than established. Needless to say, we did not go see the cemetery on the day after. Not bad for a good scam in Cuba, right?
The best scam in Cuba, however, is yet to come. On our first night in Vinales, we had a salsa lesson. As the dancing school was undergoing renovation works, we had to take the class at our teacher’s neighbour’s apartment. The lady was nice, polite, the house small but spotless. As we finished the lesson, we asked the teacher if he could suggest a paladar for the night. The lady jumped at the occasion and said we could eat there. In disbelief for the invitation, we asked for a clarification. Of course we were not going to be invited: we’d have to pay for our food, we’d be served at the table and sit by ourselves. Just as in a restaurant, only with the embarassment of being in someone’s home. We told her we’d eat there the day after and we suggested that the family, as well as our teacher, should eat with us. Now, they were shocked! Tourists asking to eat with Cubans? Woaaaaa! Well… We come from a land of hospitality: anybody entering our home, here, is offered at least coffee, of not more. Imagine how it would be like if we presented him a bill on his way out!! So much for hospitality, we decided the day after that it would be too weird for us to have to pay for our dinner (whether a modest one or a luxury one) when invited at someone’s home, and we arranged to tell the lady we’d not eat there after all.
My guide in Vinales – the same guide who wanted to sleep with me – invited me for a mojito once. After the bad experience of dealing with him during the day, I was not ready to drink with him, and in any case I expected his invitation to be more in the Cuban style: “I invite you, we both drink, you pay” (something that happens to all female travelers in Cuba). When we eventually met in the square, I was already having my mojito. He did not have any, I did not suggest he should. I guess he got the message: no, I was not going to fall into his trap. After all, a friend of mine on the very same day had run an experiment with a Cuban party: he kept drinking the rum he was kindly offered, until he eventually thought he had reached his limit and stood up to leave. The people at the party complained, invited him to stay longer, told him they were going to get more rum. He pointed at the almost empty bottle. He was not going to pay for another one, which is what he suspected they wanted from him. He was told all sorts of rude things as he left. After all, he managed to play their game: I drink, you pay!! 😉
Before boarding our flight back to Europe, we decided to have one last mojito at the airport. As we observed the bartender very closely – we told her we wanted to learn how to make good mojitos too – we noticed she dropped some extra Havana Club 7 anos in our drinks, something she did not do to other customers. We had a nice long chat with her.
All in all, we left puzzled: for as much as they are friendly and hospitable with their fellows, Cubans are the opposite with travelers and whatever occasion is good for them to make that little extra money, whether for a reason or not. It is a bit of a nonsense to us: on this side of the world, we are usually hospitable to friends and travelers almost in the same way, and if anything, we treat travelers even more politely as we want to ensure they have a great experience and come back to visit. We’d never dream to invite travelers for a drink and then demand that they pay. We’d never ask money in order to give directions. I guess we are not as poor, yet, I have travelled to other poor countries and never experienced anything similar.
What is yet more interesting is that the most hospitable people we met are the ones who had no apparent reason to be so friendly and kind. The guy in Baracoa, the lady who offered us coffee at the station, the bartender who added a little extra good rum in our drink. I suppose good things sometimes come when you least expect it…
For more of my adventures in Cuba, read here.