How I Was Scammed in Cuba Twice

Scammed in Cuba National Hotel Havana

Whenever you travel, it is important to be cautious and sometimes skeptical. I am going to share two experiences I had where I was scammed in Cuba, in hopes that it may prevent others from making the same mistakes. Both scams are very common, especially in tourist areas within Old Havana.
Scammed in Cuba old Chevrolet car
I must first say that I absolutely loved Havana and would definitely go back. I hold no animosity over these two experiences. I look at being scammed in Cuba as local’s who are struggling to find any way to survive, and have resorted to scamming.

1) First Time Scammed in Cuba

Both instances took place while I was visiting Old Havana, Cuba. This first time I was scammed with a very common ploy that locals try with tourists.

As I leave the restaurant O’Reilly 304 (which I highly recommend checking out if you are in Old Havana) I meet a Cuban man named Michael who spoke really good English. His eyes light up when he finds out I am American, and starts telling me how much he loves the Yankees baseball team. He says at his job at the museum he met one of the players when he was visiting Cuba.

As a side note: American tourists are still somewhat rare in Cuba. American-Cuban relations were bad for so long that now finally American tourism is starting to trickle down to Cuba. Most tourists come from Asia, many being Russians.

Knowing Derek Jeter instantly gives you credibility

He proceeds to pull out his cell phone and pulls up a picture of the actual Derek Jeter inside of Michael’s house. It was a photo of Michael and his father standing in their kitchen with Jeter smiling in between the two. While contemplating the sheer randomness of this situation, I thoroughly examined the photo.

After trying to do some CSI: Photoshop I came to the conclusion it was a legitimate picture. Now I am not a big baseball fan by any means, but Michael’s credibility instantly skyrocketed in my book. I was caught hook, line and sinker.

Never buy Cuban cigars off of the street

Michael and I continue to his house where we find his father watching baseball. Michael then shows me a beautiful Cohiba cigar box. He explained a whole story to me that his mother worked in a Cohiba cigar rolling factory where they would sometimes pay employees in cigars. His mother had personally hand rolled these Cohibas.

Scammed in Cuba Cohiba cigars

The box had all of the Cohiba branding, and inside were even the standard issued factory papers proving their authenticity. He presents to me an almost “too good to be true” scenario where he can sell me the box for about one-fifth of the normal price that it would be in stores.

Now I was in the market for cigars already wanting to return home with some Cubans. What cooler place to buy Cuban cigars than in an authentic Cuban home? I mean Derek Jeter had even been in this house. Now at dinner parties I can brag about my one degree of separation from Derek Jeter.

So I buy the Cohiba cigars from Michael and bring them back to the AirBnB I was staying at. In the complex, I met a really nice driver named Carlos (aka Carlosito). Instantly when I showed him my new cigars he explained they were fakes.

How to spot fake Cuban cigars

The main signs the cigars were fake were:

  1. I bought them off of the street (this will almost always result in being scammed in Cuba)
  2. The Cohiba label has a gold lining with holographic glitter. The brim on mine were just a flat yellowy-gold color
  3. The tobacco was multi-colored, indicating some cheap blend was used
  4. The tobacco at the end was not “spiral” shaped, which indicates they were hand rolled. Rather it was a very non-geometric conglomeration which indicates it was machine-made.

2) Second Time Scammed in Cuba

The second time I was scammed in Cuba was a two-for-one deal. This experience had two attempted scams, with only one successful. I’ll take 50%. Glass half full.

My friend Fidel hailed me a cab ride in a really cool old-school Chevrolet from probably the 50’s (Most of the cars in Cuba are really cool throwback 50-60’s Americana-style). It was late and I was trying to get back to my AirBnB in Vedado from downtown Old Havana.

Scammed in Cuba old american cars

The driver spoke almost no English so my low level Spanish really needed to step up. We got into a fittingly low-level conversation and I painfully attempted to explain how I had been scammed buying fake cigars.

Then out of some kind of cosmic joke from God, or this just being a very common scam for Cubans, he whips out the same exact Cohiba box from the center console.

He explains how many Cubans rip-off tourists with fake cigars, but the ones he had were legitimate. I play somewhat dumb and open the box to inspect the cigars. Everything was there, the factory note, all the Cohiba branding. But as I closely examine one of the labels, I see the same cheap, yellowy-gold lining.

One of the most frustrating things in the world is trying to argue with someone in a language you aren’t good at. In a way it reminds me of when you’re dreaming and you are trying to run away but you are stuck in slow motion. That’s kind of how your tongue feels.

I eventually give up trying to debate him on why the cigars are fake. The main phrase I could measle up in the heat of the moment was, “Usted cree que soy estupido” which translates to, “You think I am stupid“. I was really unsatisfied with this response. There were so many clever and witty things that the language barrier thwarted.

Cuba's currency CUC vs CUP

Photo Credit: Those Who Wander

Cuba’s two currencies, CUP vs CUC

Eventually he gets outside of my destination where I am about to begrudgingly pay 5 pesos CUC for the ride. Now Cuba has two different currencies under the umbrella of the “peso”. CUP (pronounced “koop“) is mainly used by the locals in Cuba, while tourists mainly only use CUC (pronounced “kook“).

However there is a large value disparity between the two currencies. The CUC is 25 times more valuable than the CUP.

Converting CUC to CUP

1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP

or

$1 USD = 1 CUC

$1 USD = 25 CUP

And this disparity helped this driver prove the common phrase, “second time’s the charm”. I give the driver 20 CUC, needing 15 CUC in change. The driver hands me a 15$ bill. Already being skeptical of this guy, I ask him if it was CUC or CUP. He insisted it was CUC and since I didn’t know how to spot the difference I conceded.

The next time I got to internet I searched for the visual differences between CUC and CUP. I hung my head in defeat, for dodging one scam but then falling for the “Plan B” scam.

Don’t get scammed in Cuba: Difference between CUC and CUP

Here are the main ways you can identify whether a bill is CUC or CUP:

  • CUC: says “Peso Convertible” on both the front and back. The main visual difference is that it has pictures of statues/monuments
  • CUP: has pictures with large faces on the likes of Che Guevara. CUP is also an older currency so usually the bills will be more worn.

Nightlife in Havana, Cuba

Interested in the nightlife of Havana, Cuba? Check out the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, or Cuban Art Factory.

travel His world
About

Originally from Chicago, now traveling around the world while working remotely as a web designer / developer. A Christian trying to be a shining light in a dark world.

3 Comments

  • Avatar
    Antonina March 27, 2019 at 10:54 am Reply

    Oh, sorry to hear that! But in the first case, wasn’t it strange of him to take you to his house? I mean, you knew where he lived and could come back anytime demanding your money back?

    • travel His world
      travel His world March 27, 2019 at 2:59 pm Reply

      Yes I did think about how strange it was that he revealed where he lived. However I think he was counting on the fact that most of Old Havana is a winding labyrinth of similar looking streets, which most tourists would easily forget. He also lived in a big apartment building with a locked front door. You live and learn!

  • What Americans Traveling to Cuba Should Know 2019 - travel His world March 29, 2019 at 2:05 am Reply

    […] sure you know what currency you are dealing with. I touch on this in my previous article, “How I Was Scammed in Cuba Twice“, but many tourists are taken advantage of because they don’t know what the CUP looks […]

Leave a Reply