For a while there Cuba had a bit of a reputation as a place that tourists should avoid going. Stories of scam artists, bag snatching and increased crime levels kept all but the hardiest of tourists from getting that passport stamp. Its reputation, however, isn’t entirely justified and the reality is that Cuba is no more or less safe than most other countries. Of course there will still be a certain amount of crime just like you’d get anywhere else, but because being forewarned is forearmed, knowing where to avoid and what to look out for is the key to having a great time abroad.
It is always comforting to know where you’re going to be sleeping when night comes, but we do admit that there is a certain appeal to travelling wherever and whenever the whim takes you. If you prefer the latter style of travelling, and like the freedom that comes with making absolutely no plans whatsoever, be aware that in Cuba certain levels of modernisation are yet to arrive in the travel sector. This includes a high tech booking system, or to be precise, a swift booking system, and the reality is that many hotel reservations need to be made up to one week in advance. This is one country where you might have to curb that ‘free as a bird’ spirit and plan ahead especially if you’re prone to enjoying solo holidays and don’t often travel with company.
The main towns and cities, and of all the popular resorts of course, will have plenty of English speakers to help you with everything you need, but outside these areas most travellers will encounter a barrier with the language as the natives tend to stick to Spanish and whichever colloquialism fits with their particular area. If you don’t speak Spanish, and if you don’t have the time to learn a few important phrases before you go, planning your activities before you leave is advisable. Everything from booking taxi’s and restaurant tables, to researching tours and sporting activities can usually be done through your tour operator and could save you a big headache when you arrive. Adventure holidays in Cuba shouldn’t be daring for the wrong reasons!
Scams and Crime
Although crime here isn’t as bad as you might get in a third world or underdeveloped country, Cuba still has a few issues that travellers need to be aware of:
- Pickpockets – Opportunist crime is pretty big in Cuba, and the main resorts are not immune. Keeping yourself safe though is actually pretty easy. Don’t carry bags that are wide open and vulnerable and don’t keep things in pockets that can’t be secured by a zip or button. To make extra sure, secure bag zips with small padlocks to prevent anyone opening them.
- Bag Snatchers – As with pickpockets, bag snatching is fairly common but easily preventable. Rucksacks with two straps should be worn over both shoulders so they can’t be easily pulled off, and bags with shoulder straps should be worn across the body.
- The Mojito Mix-Up – A common method of extracting money from unwitting travellers is by getting them to pay over the odds for something that usually costs much less. A typical example is a bar tab. You order a Mojito which usually costs around 1.50 Cuban Pesos (about £1.00) but you don’t ask the price first. When your bill arrives you’re charged 7.50 Cuban Pesos for the same drink and there’ll probably even be a falsified copy of a menu to cover any complaint you want to make. One drink may not sound so bad, but if you start a tab you could be in trouble.
- Phony Merchandise – As with most countries the attraction of picking up a great bargain on some authentic merchandise can sometimes lead travellers to be blinded by what they’re actually being offered. Cuba is no different, and one of the most prevalent hustles here is to offer fake cigars at inflated prices with promises that they’re the genuine hand-rolled variety. This is one of the easiest ways to lose money on holiday in Cuba, particularly if you’re not familiar with the currency. The best advice is to make sure you only buy from authorised traders or when you’re on pre-planned tours.
Avoiding issues like these is easily achieved if you make yourself less of a target, and the best way to do this is not to let yourself look like a tourist. Leave the bum bag behind and don’t wander around with a camera hanging around your neck and a street map in your hands. If you look like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, you’ll be less attractive to local criminals. And if you do happen to be approached by street peddlers, be firm and say no. If they perceive any flicker of interest in them or what they’re selling they’ll become much harder to get rid of.
Fiona Galloway is a travel writer who enjoys adventure holidays in South America.
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