Is Cuba Safe? | Gringo’s Travel Guide
Is Cuba Safe?
I had no idea but was about to find out…
It was late on a Thursday evening and I'd been smoking Cubans cigars and drinking mojitos with a buddy. Just doing Cuba things while in the communist country. It was time for a little shuteye before a tour to Vinales the next morning, so we decided to head back to our casa particular.
We looked for a taxi but realized we could see our casa particular in the skyline. So we set off walking the mean streets of Havana at night. The old city was stunning when the sun went down and walking around felt about as safe as anywhere I'd been in Latin America.
Then we took a turn towards the casa particular. And soon, the street lights went away. Damn near pitch black walking down a back alley in Cuba. Decrepit buildings all around.
My buddy and I both quickened our pace instinctually.
With damn near a decade of Latin America travel experience between us, we knew this wasn't exactly an ideal situation to be in. In Latin America, one wrong turn at night can easily equal a knife being pulled on you or worse. Then we heard footsteps were coming behind us. They were getting closer and closer. Speeding up. I could feel my heart rate accelerating as he approached. So I turned around…
“Hey, my friends!”
A middle-aged local in a Cuban-style fedora rolled up to us. He was trying to be friendly, but it was clear as day he was a sketchy character…
P.S: Anyone who calls you “my friend” in a foreign country most definitely isn't your friend.
Before we could tell him to kick rocks, he starts in on his sales pitch. From nightclubs to women to cocaine to kidneys – apparently, the guy had it all and could get it to us with the quickness.
We turned around and keep walking. The dark streets of Havana were more than menacing looking, but we made it back to the casa particular without issue. Outside of the Cuban hustler and a few girls hissing at us, we didn't have a single safety issue that night. Or at any time in Cuba.
Walking along dark streets at night. Engaging in shady deals with taxi drivers in back alleys. Leaving our cameras on the beach while swimming. Overall, Cuba seemed more than safe. But one can only explore so much of a country in less than a week. One can only find out so much when visiting a country for the first time.
Is Cuba safe? Well, we need to dig a little deeper to answer that accurately. Which is exactly what you'll find below…everything you need to know about safety in Cuba, including things like:
Table of Contents
My Experiences in Cuba
I'm no Cuba expert. But to be honest, most people harping on about the country aren't, either.
As such, most content creators and digital nomads spend a week or two in the country. This means there's no such thing an expert on living and Cuba. There's no Cuba safety expert around. Which is why I'm giving y'all my take on safety in Cuba. Which you should take with a grain of salt or three.
Overall, I found the country to be one of the safest in Latin America. I spent time in:
- Playa del Este
Never truly felt threatened in any of them. The mean streets of Havana may look incredibly intimidating, especially at night. But I found them to be anything but dangerous.
People walk around at night without issue. Police are all around in Havana, especially in the tourist zones.
There's always people outside in Cuba, as the lack of Internet, Netflix, and the like mean humans actually have to speak to each other for entertainment. And they generally do so outside their homes. In the streets. Or on the Malecon. At night.
Plus, there are no gangs in Cuba. I didn't see any unruly teenagers harassing people while in the country. Didn't see a single weapon not wielded by a police officer my whole time in the country. Didn't witness anything that remotely constitutes a crime during my whole time in the country.
But again, that's just one man's account of his short trip in the country. To truly find out is Cuba safe or not, we need some more info.
Safety in Cuba | What the Stats Say?
And when talking about more info, I'm talking cold hard facts. Aka statistics. But there's an issue…
Cuba is a crumbling communist dictatorship that doesn't exactly publish up-to-date murder rates and crime stats. And by up-to-date, I mean accurate. So we'll have to read between a few lines and do the best with the information we have.
Which, unsurprisingly, is from the Miami Herald (Source):
The country had 477 homicides in 2012 or a rate of 4.2 per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That’s the third lowest homicide rate in the hemisphere after Canada and Chile, and it’s dramatically lower than its neighbors. Jamaica, for example, had a homicide rate of 39.3 per 100,000, followed by the Bahamas with 29.8 and Puerto Rico with 26.5. The Mainland United States, by comparison, had a rate of 4.7 homicides per 100,000.
Not too shabby, Fidel. Not too shabby at all.
If that murder rate is accurate, then Cuba is one of the safest countries in Latin America by a long shot. For comparison's sake, let's take a look at the murder rate of other Latin American countries I know quite well.
The murder rate in my favorite country of all-time, Colombia?
Well, that comes in at an improving, yet staggering 23 per 100,000 people (Source).
What about another Caribbean nation that wasn't mentioned?
The Dominican Republic has a murder rate of 30.2 per 100,000 people (Source).
As we can see, Cuba is seemingly far safer than both these popular tourist locales in Latin America. But, what does the U.S. government have to say about the place? Well, it seems things have changed in recent months due to a so-called attack at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Just look (Source):
Reconsider travel to Cuba due to attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff.
Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks. Many of these employees have suffered injuries. Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping.
Because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk. Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences (including a long-term apartment at the Atlantic) and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana is operating with reduced staffing and, as result, has limited ability to assist U.S. citizens, particularly outside Havana.
Not only that, but many reports have surfaced about petty crimes throughout Havana.
As Cuba is an exceptionally poor country, it should come as no surprise that theft isn't uncommon throughout the country – especially in areas the tourists tend to frequent.
According to OSAC (Source):
While there are no reliable crime statistics from the government, the U.S. Embassy continues to receive several reports per month of non-violent crimes against tourists. These numbers are increasing slightly and are consistent with reporting from other diplomatic missions. Most crime can be associated with pickpocketing, purse snatching, fraud schemes, and thefts from unoccupied cars, hotel rooms, and dwellings. American travelers are generally perceived to be wealthy. Most offenses take place in areas frequented by foreigners.
With all that said and the constant fear-mongering about Cuba, some may be worried I certainly get that. But the stats paint a pretty clear picture to me…
You're going to come back alive from Cuba. Guaranteed.
The murder rate in Cuba is lower than that of the United States. One of the lowest in Latin America. It's virtually impossible to get your hands on a weapon in the country.
And the only real risk you have is getting something stolen from you when you're not paying attention. Aka when you give someone who makes less than $100 USD a month the chance to steal your electronics, cash, and whatever else they believe has value.
No dar papaya, marika.
Even then, it's less likely you'll be robbed in Cuba than in most other Latin American countries. The police in Cuba do not mess around. If a Cuban is caught stealing something, especially from a tourist, the consequences could be grave.
So most Cubans seem to live in fear of the government and police, which ensures they don't even interact with foreigners – much less think about robbing them blind.
How to Stay Safe in Cuba
If we're being honest…
It's not too hard to stay safe in Cuba. A few minor precautions will ensure you have nothing to worry about. Well, nothing except a few common scams crafted to ensure your tourist dollars end up in the pocket of some unscrupulous hustler.
Alas, here's a few quick Cuba safety tips:
Learn a Little Spanish
Learning a little Spanish is my number one safety tip in almost every Latin American country.
Because being able to communicate with locals is one of the best ways to avoid confrontation no matter what country you're in.
Cuba is no different.
English levels are not good in the country and Spanish will help you navigate your way around the island even when you don't have WiFi for directions and advice.
Luckily, it's never been easier to start learning the love language before you hit the road.
Keep Valuables Hidden
Cuba is an exceptionally poor country. The average Cuban makes less than $100 USD a month from their work. As such, the vast majority of crime in Cuba boils down to economics.
A new iPhone might be worth half a years' salary to the average Cuban. A MacBook could be equal to a full years' income.
Keep this in mind when flashing wealth and electronics around in the country. It's best to keep all your valuables, electronics, and cash pretty tucked away in your hotel or casa particular.
Never Change Money on the Street
Never, ever take your cash from back home out on the streets in Havana to exchange. You're going to get royally ripped off – often to the tune of counterfeit money.
Instead, stick to exchanging money at a state-sponsored exchange called a, CADECA.
You'll get the same rate everywhere in the country when you go to one of these places and you won't have any worry about counterfeit money, either. Some hotels also offer reliable money exchange services, as there's no such thing as ATMs in Cuba. Well, at least for Americans.
Pay Attention to Guests
If you're looking for a little “company” in Cuba, it's never far away. When in Rome and all that jazz.
While I didn't indulge in this side of Cuba, I heard some horror stories from people that did. So just make sure you pay attention to what you're doing and who you're doing it with.
Oh, and make sure to register any guest with your casa particular host or at the hotel. This ensures none of your stuff just happens to go missing the following morning.
Is Havana, Cuba Dangerous?
We've discussed a general overview of Cuba safety, but most visitors head to one city and one city only…
The capital of this crumbling Caribbean country is a poster child for the phrase, “Don't judge a book by its cover.” Why? Because the rundown city looks like a place you'd find crime around every corner.
The reality? Is Havana, Cuba dangerous?
Havana, Cuba is not dangerous at all. In fact, I'm inclined to believe this is the safest large city in all of the Caribbean. I've yet to hear of any tourist murders or violent crimes against tourists — both in Havana and outside the capital.
The Cuban government is abysmal overall, but the draconian penalties for breaking the law have curbed crime in Havana significantly. You can walk around here freely and without worry — which is a rarity in Latin America.
Havana, Cuba is NOT dangerous. This is a 100% safe city in the opinion of your humble author.
Is Cuba Safe? | Gringo's Travel Guide
Whew! Almost 2,100+ words to answer one simple question…
Is Cuba safe?
According to this gringo, the country is more than safe. In fact, Cuba might be the safest country in Latin America. Sure, it's still a foreign land. Watch out for scams and hustlers. Pay attention to your surroundings. Don't go hanging around the slums all day and night. Be cognizant of any guests you bring over.
But overall, you shouldn't have much issue traveling to Cuba. The Cuban people love tourists and foreign travelers, especially Americans.
Enjoy the country, smoke a Cuban cigar, drinking some fine rum, and feel free to let your guard down just a little bit.