Safety in Havana

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"Havana is still one of the safest places in Latin America"

Your safety is assured. Cuba is still one of the safest destinations in Latin America, and has a low Caribbean crime rate compared to other countries in the area.
The majority of tourists will never encounter any problems, but it’s always wise to take some precautions because of the minor criminality that exists.(pick pocketing, false money exchange and theft of handbags).

How to prevent problems ?

This sounds obvious, but do not take a lot of cash with you on the streets. Friends in Cuba say take a maximum of 50 CUC, but as a tourist you may need more. Leave your credit card and passport in the hotel safe and take a copy with you.
Do not wear expensive jewels or golden chains, most Cubans wear very cheap or fake jewels, and snatching off a golden chains happens.

Never exchange money on the streets, chances are great that you receive counterfeit or outdated banknotes in exchange for your good money. When paying the bill in a bar or restaurant don’t use a 50 CUC banknote as several counterfeits are circulating these days.
Take enough small banknotes of 1 – 2 – 5 –10 CUC (peso convertible): don’t pay each time with a 20 or 50 CUC note.

If you rent a car, never leave it unattended, always leave it in a guarded parking lot.

WARNING

Don’t walk alone at night in scarcely lit streets, especially in Old and Central Havana.

An American tourist told us, Havana is the safest city, he walked one morning at 2 o’clock alone without any problem. Could be, but don’t risk it. When going out at night avoid the side streets and don’t go alone – ever!
Take a taxi to return to your hotel or to go to a restaurant.

After a pleasant evening out, check the bill, sometimes you get an “adjusted" bill especially if there was fun and lots of drinking. Best practice: pay after each order and each time check the bill.

All cigars you buy from that friendly barman, the hustler on the streets or from someone working in a cigar factory are counterfeits. Period. The original (real) cigar brands are only sold in the State shops, State hotels and the (official) cigar factories. Each box has a certificate and a holographic seal.
The high quality cigars are not cheap, prices range from 5 CUC up to 15 CUC each. A box of original Cohibas costs about 300 – 400 CUC or more. The average price for the imitations is about 1 CUC. A counterfeit box of 25 Montecristo cigars sells for 25 CUC on the streets. I’m not saying these are bad cigars, but they are imitations of the real thing. Connoisseurs can distinguish the conterfeits from the genuine ones not only by tasting but also by observing the color and the firmness of the cigar. Imitations are mainly composed of tobacco waste.

Make it a habit to check your cash and change all the time, this practice can save you good money.
Shortchanging happens frequently!
Some examples:

1. Safety in Havana: At the Varadero airport,
I exchanged money at the official money exchange CADECA. The girl behind the desk handed me a bundle of peso convertible and a handful of coins. I verified the money and two pesos were missing (2 USD). I returned the money to her without saying anything. She counted the money again and added the two missing pesos. Nice try lady!

Next day in a restaurant, they “mistakenly” added an extra soft drink to the bill, …..oh , sorry an error, then it happened with a cocktail …and I can go on for a while.

2. Watch out with rum.
Check the seal of each bottle of rum you buy carefully, especially the more expensive bottles. A Cuban friend invited me to his home and I bought him a bottle Havana Club rum, 7 years old as a present.
My friend, who is a barman, knows a lot of tricks, and he said that the seal of the bottle was broken and they probably mixed the 7-year-old rum with one-year-old rum. Pay attention when you buy the more expensive bottles, in some stores they show you a “real ” bottle and while you’re paying they change the bottle for another.

3. The trick with powdered milk is a "classic".
On the street, a woman approaches and says: “hello, where are you from?”
She starts telling a story: her sister urgently needs milk for her baby and she has no money to buy it. The first time I heard the story I was impressed and went with the woman to a State owned shop to buy her a pack of powdered milk at 6 dollars (it happened 5 years ago). Later the trick was explained to me. She can make more money by asking for milk because tourists accept this story better than if she were to ask for money. After she gets the powdered milk from a tourist, she returns to the shop to resell the milk for 3 dollars, the other 3 dollars is the profit of the shopkeeper.

4. Money exchange scams in the city
This happened to a friend of mine in front of a bank. A Cuban guy proposed him a much better exchange rate than he could get at the bank. He exchanged two hundred dollars (5 years ago – dollars were still accepted at that time) and received peso nacional instead of peso convertible. My friend not knowing the difference between both currencies, got 200 peso nacional worth about 8 dollars (1 peso CUC equals 24 peso nacional). Never exchange money on the streets or in a bar - counterfeit pesos are circulating.

5. Illegal Taxis
Don’t take a taxi without an official license. I did it once and I paid more for the same distance than I did with the official taxi. Watch out when you travel with strangers or people you do not know, there are enough stories about pick pocketing. I heard the story of a tourist who took an unofficial taxi and was charged to much and subsequently robbed when he refused to pay the bill.

6. Story tellers
The Cubans are masters in inventing stories and simulating. One night, years ago, I was sitting on the terrace at the Presidente hotel. The waiter came to my table and said: Señor, the lady two tables away asks if she can join you. I said, yes, I like a little chat.

The woman started her touching story: I work with the famous Tropicana dancers, but tonight I feel so lonely because tomorrow I leave for the first time my country, we will make a tour in Europe with the dancers, blah blah blah….. She continued, I am single and my child will stay with my mother here in Cuba.
But...(and then came what I expected) this afternoon my handbag was stolen and I gave all my money to my mother to buy food for the baby.
Can you help me with 20 dollars for my taxi? I refused to give her the 20 dollars and she angrily left the table. I watched her for a moment and saw her walking towards a small red car, and then she drove away with her car into the night.


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