Havana is not a dangerous city, especially when compared to other metropolitan areas in North and South America. There is almost no gun crime, violent robbery, organized gang culture, teenage delinquency, drugs or dangerous no-go zones. Rather, a heavy police presence on the streets and stiff prison sentences for crimes such as assault have acted as a major deterrent for would-be criminals and kept the dirty tentacles of organized crime at bay.
Petty crime against tourists in Havana – almost nonexistent in the 1990s – is widespread and on the rise, with pickpocketing, bag-snatching by youths mounted on bicycles and the occasional face-to-face mugging all being reported.
Bring a money belt and keep it on you at all times, making sure that you wear it concealed – and tightly secured – around your waist.
In hotels use a safety deposit box (if there is one) and never leave money, passports or credit cards lying around during the day. Theft from hotel rooms is tediously common, with the temptation of earning three times your monthly salary in one fell swoop often too hard to resist.
In bars and restaurants it is wise to check your change. Purposeful overcharging, especially when someone is mildly inebriated, is a favorite (and easy) trick.
Visitors from well-ordered European countries or litigation-obsessed North America should keep an eye out for crumbling sidewalks, manholes with no covers, inexplicable driving rules, veering cyclists, carelessly lobbed front-door keys (in Centro Habana) and enthusiastically hit baseballs (almost everywhere). Waves cascading over the Malecón sea wall might look pretty, but the resulting slime-fest has been known to send Lonely Planet–wielding tourists flying unceremoniously onto their asses.
Tourist scams are the bane of travelers in many cities, and Havana is no exception, although the city rates more favorably than plenty of other Latin American metro areas. Some Cuban con tricks are familiar to anyone who has traveled internationally. Agree on taxi fares before getting in a cab, don’t change money on the street, and always check your bill and change in restaurants. Cuba’s professional tricksters are called jineteros (literally, jockeys). They are particularly proficient in Havana where their favorite pastime is selling knock-off cigars to unsuspecting tourists.
Cuba’s dual currency invites scammers. Although the two sets of banknotes look very similar, there are actually 25 moneda nacional (MN$; sometimes called Cuban pesos) to every Cuban convertible (CUC$). Familiarize yourself with the banknotes early on (most banks have pictorial charts) and double-check all money transactions to avoid being left seriously out of pocket. One popular trick is for young men in the street to offer to change foreign currency into Cuban convertibles at very favorable rates, but as you'll be given back moneda nacional, it will be only worth one-twenty-fifth of the value when you take them into a shop.
Casas particulares (private homestays) attract jineteros who prey on both travelers and casa owners. A common trick is for a jinetero to pose falsely as a reputed casa particular owner who a traveler has booked in advance (including those listed by Lonely Planet), and then proceed to lead you to a different house where they will extract CUC$5 to CUC$10 commission (added to your room bill). On some occasions, travelers are not aware they have been led to the wrong home. There have even been reports of people writing bad reviews online.
If you've prebooked a casa, or are using Lonely Planet to find one, make sure you turn up without a commission-seeking jinetero.
Another scam is the illicit sale of cheap cigars, usually perpetuated by hissing street salesmen around Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. It is best to politely ignore these characters. Any bartering is not worth the bother. Cigars sold on the street are almost always substandard – something akin to substituting an expensive French wine with cheap white vinegar. Instead, buy your cigars direct from the factory or visit one of the numerous Casas del Habano that are scattered throughout the city.