Stay safe & healthy
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood-watch-style programs (known as the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or C.D.R.) generally keep the streets safe from violent crime.
Drug laws can be harsh and their implementation unpredictable. The same may be said about the laws concerning prostitution. The importation, possession or production of pornography is strictly prohibited. It is not uncommon to see a dog jogging on the luggage carousel sniffing arriving luggage, especially when arriving from countries prone to drug-trafficking, so be sure to lock and/or wrap your luggage to avoid any problems in this regard.
Tourists are generally advised not to involve themselves in the following three areas: politics, drugs, or pornography/prostitution. There is relatively little tolerance amongst the authorities for public comments made against the Revolution, Fidel, Che, etc. It is advisable to refrain from making such comments.
Women receive a lot of attention from men, especially away from the more touristy centre of Havana. Avoiding cleavage and short skirts will lessen the attention, although by no means stop it. Do not get annoyed by the whistles or hissing sounds, as Cuban women often acknowledge and welcome the attention. Acknowledging it too enthusiastically, however, will probably encourage the men.
Cuba is a country of scams, which are so rampant they surprise even seasoned travellers:
- Renting a car in Cuba calls for your attention on every single CUC you pay. One of the reported scams is referring to the cost of insurance and it is quite expensive as you may get to pay twice the real cost. Price of the insurance depends only on the car model, but the clerk might start to explain the difference between 2-3 types of policies, at different costs (for the same car class). Obviously, the more expensive one has full coverage (except for the radio and tires theft). This is the scam! If you choose the more expensive option, you are told that it is not possible to pay the full amount with credit card. Nevertheless it is possible to pay a part of it with credit card (exactly the cost of the less expensive one)and pay cash for the difference. You will not get any receipt, nor does this sum appears on the rental contract. This is the exact amount the scammer gets from you. Remember: There is only one type of insurance policy covering everything (except for radio and tires) and the price varies only depending on the car type.
- Real-looking discount cigars of dubious authenticity being offered by street touts. Quite often though these are indeed genuine articles which have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and are sold at substantial discount on legal and taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish genuine cigars then you should only buy from the official cigar dealers. The best people to buy untaxed (illegal but genuine) cigars from tend to be hotel doormen who will not be offended if asked "if they know where you can get cheap cigars" and may lead you to a room in the hotel used for this purpose. If buying untaxed cigars you should not pay more than say CUC 50 for a box of say 25 Esplendidos (around ten times cheaper than taxed cigars a rule of thumb). Be careful that you see the box you are buying open to prove there are in fact cigars in it. Also often stickers are included to allow you to seal the box as if it had been taxed. There is a risk that customs will confiscate these on exit, but for less than 50 cigars it is very unlikely. If carrying more than they should be split between the members of your party. Since the activity of selling untaxed cigars stolen or collection from the factory is illegal and the locals are often very short of money outside the main tourist season it is possible to haggle the prices very low, but since a typical salary for a hotel worker may be the equivalent of USD 20 per month it may seem unfair.
- "Friendly" locals inviting tourists to bars for a drink (normally a Mojito) or to a restaurant; the tourist will be charged two to three times the normal price, and the spoils split between the establishment and the "friend". In Central Havana area, a running trick is a young local man or couple, in pretext of practising English, to invite tourists to attend a performance by "Buena Vista Social Club" (no, most of the members of BVSC have passed away and the group hasn't performed in Havana for many years) while suggesting to go to a nearby bar for a drink while waiting for the show to start. Some locals even demand shamelessly a few CUC for their company.
- ALWAYS negotiate your price in advance, especially for taxis. Make the price 101% clear before doing any business, especially if you are not a Spanish speaker. It is not uncommon to reach a destination with a taxi and be asked for much more money than agreed, on a pretext of misunderstanding. For example, 25 CUC instead of 5 CUC. The advice is to write the price on a piece of paper and show it to the person.
- Short-changing in bars or taxis or giving national pesos (CUP) in change for convertible pesos (CUC). Or, offering to swap 3 CUC or more for a "special edition" 3 peso coin with a picture of Che Guevara (the swap is of a CUC for CUP which is worth about 20 times less). Unfortunately unlike bills, convertible coins are unmarked as such. Get familiarized with the coins as soon as you get them from the bank or CADECA - the ones with a big star or Che Guevara on one side are all national pesos.
- Water is often sold around tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water and re-sealed (which can be poisonous). You can usually see this tampering on the bottle, but not always, in any case tap water will taste markedly different to bottled water and should be avoided in all cases. If in doubt you should discard the water. In fact, real bottled water (same goes for canned soft drinks) is a luxury even to locals and costs about the same either in national pesos (around 10 CUP) or convertibles (around 0.45 CUC) in stores, local or tourist ones alike - if you get one too cheaply, it's probably too good to be true.
- Locals offer to swap money at a 'local bank' where the natives can get the best rates and ask you to remain outside whilst they do the deal as your presence would drive the rate up. If you give them your money you will never see them again.
- Credit cards scams are common and accordingly money should only be withdrawn in reputable hotels or banks. Ideally carry cash with you, USD, EUR and GBP are almost universally accepted (in order of popularity) despite being illegal to spend.
- In Havana it is important to always be careful when using money. When taking a taxi, ask someone familiar with the system what the approximate fare should be, as many drivers will try to set an artificially high fare before departing. If in doubt, insist that they use the meter. You can almost be sure that any predetermined fare from the airport is at least 5-10 CUC higher than it should be - insist on the meter.
- Shop assistants have been known to take advantage of foreigners when it comes to providing change (if in doubt, observe what the other customers are doing before making your purchase):
- Some have been known not to give change and go on serving the next customer, assuming the tourist will not be able to speak enough Spanish to question the matter.
- Some may take advantage of where ambiguity exists between whether or not published prices are in CUC or CUP, and many vendors will take CUC when CUP is due and pocket the difference without telling you of your mistake.
- Some may also provide change in the wrong currency, thus providing insufficient change (e.g. providing 3 CUP change rather than 3 CUC change).
- Some may also attempt to provide large amounts of change in CUP rather than CUC, which can leave a foreigner potentially stuck with currency they cannot convert back to foreign currency. This at first may seem like an inconvenience, but this is actually often a scam. Cubans often provide 20 CUP change per 1 CUC, but the ratio is actually closer to 25 CUP per 1 CUC. Therefore, if you pay 5 CUC for an item of 20 CUP, and you are given change at 20 CUP per 1 CUC (i.e. 80 CUP change), the person providing change is actually pocketing an extra 25 CUP, the equivalent of 1 CUC; in effect, you could be charged more than double through this scam.
- Credit card scams are common. Do not let your credit card out of your hands, and watch as the salesperson passes the card in the machine. If anything seems strange, DO NOT SIGN! Merchants in small shops may take your card to an adjacent bank counter and use it to take out a cash advance. Look closely at your receipts, if the receipt indicates 'Venta' and a dollar or CUC amount, this means that is has been passed as a cash advance (which will be kept by the dishonest employees). Credit card facilities are however generally so limited to non-existent in shops that it is customary and more practical to just pay with cash.
- Often, real products such as rum and cigars may be switched by employees for fake ones which are under the counter or in a storeroom.
- Jineteros/jineteras are a problem in larger cities, and will try to sell tourists anything, including restaurants, cigars, sex and drugs. Note that this type of solicitation is illegal in Cuba and most will leave you alone if you ignore them or politely say no for fear of police attention. If you do find yourself in a situation with a more relentless jinetero, tell them that you have been in the country for several weeks, that you are a student at the university or that you are from a third-world country (which you could pass as a citizen of if you're white, Brazil usually works since it's a non-Spanish speaking country, Russia is another good example; Vietnam or Thailand works well if you're East Asian) and they will probably leave you alone. Many rely on tourists who are unfamiliar with the system and comparatively rich, so ideally you should try to make an impression otherwise. Keep in mind that even if a tout scoops only a few CUCs from unsuspecting tourists a day, he or she will probably make as much as a doctor's monthly salary in just a matter of a week or two.
Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. That said, some travelers drink untreated water without ill effect. The best solution is bottled water and lots of it, especially for visitors who are not used to the 30+°C/85+°F temperatures. Bottled water (agua de botella) is easily found and costs between .65 and 2 CUC for a 1.5L bottle, depending on the shop. It should be noted that the mineral count (total dissolved solids) of bottled water is quite high compared to elsewhere in the world, so if you are planning to visit Cuba for an extended period of time (e.g. as a student or on work permit), it might be a useful idea to bring a small jug/sports bottle water filter with a few cartridges along to further purify the water.
Cuban milk is usually unpasteurized, and can make visitors sick. Additionally, tourists should be wary of vegetables washed in tap water. Despite the warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and you do not need to be paranoid.
The island is tropical and thus host to a number of diseases. Some recommend an aggressive program of inoculations when planning a trip to Cuba, but most travelers come with little or none. Hepatitis B and tetanus shots are recommended by most travel clinics. Hepatitis B is generally spread by direct blood or sexual contact, the inoculation course requires three injections over several weeks, followed by a blood test to determine if it actually worked; shorter courses are available. (Interestingly, the hepatitis B vaccine is actually produced in Cuba for world-wide use). Generally tetanus immunization is more important, since tetanus is a risk with any wound or cut, especially in a dirty, contaminated wound.
HIV/AIDS infection is less than 0.1%, however, as always, you should exercise care and make sure you or your partner wears a condom should you become sexually active while in Cuba.
Cuba has one of the highest number of doctors available per capita in the world (around one doctor for every 170 people), making doctors readily accessible throughout most of the island. Your hotel reception should be able to point you to the closest doctor. (So plentiful in fact are doctors in Cuba, that it is not uncommon to see doctors selling paintings, books or other artwork to tourists at the flea market to make money to supplement their meager salaries.)
Finding some medications is, however, often difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on over-the-counter medications before heading to Cuba, as pharmacies lack many medications that westerners might expect to find, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and immodium. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to come across and expensive, so stock up before you leave.
Bigger cities--especially Havana--have very polluted air because of old cars and factories. This will cause respiratory conditions to some visitors.
Police, Fire and Medical contact numbers
The emergency number in Cuba is: 106.