Cuba Tips for American Travelers — Part 2: Money in Cuba
Cuba has two currencies — the Cuban Peso (CUPs, or pesos) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUCs, pronounced “kooks”). Cubans sometimes also call CUCs “pesos” for short, which would be confusing except the value of 1 CUP and 1 CUC is so wildly different that it’s usually pretty easy to guess which the speaker means. The exchange rate is set by the government at 1 CUC equal to 25 pesos. Here, whenever I say “pesos,” I mean CUPs.
When you convert money, you will convert to CUCs. When considering how much things cost in Cuba (e.g. should I buy this maraca), we used the shorthand that a CUC is equivalent to a dollar. It appears that, technically, they are pegged. However, if you actually try to change dollars to CUCs in Cuba, you will be penalized with an extra 10% fee — the rates we saw were about .88:1. So, assuming your bank can get you a foreign currency at a good rate, you’ll save some money bringing something other than dollars. We brought Euros, but GBP and CAD also appear to be popular choices.
Note that for Americans, you cannot use plastic at all in Cuba. No credit cards, no debit cards, no ATMs. So whatever money you show up with is all you have access to for the duration of your time there. I would describe myself as a “prepared” traveler (others may say over-prepared…to each his/her own) and so my husband and I brought about double the amount of cash that we thought we’d need.
Our guide recommended $100 per person per day for meals and mojito money, souvenirs, art, and tips (our lodging and intercity transport was included in the tour and thus pre-paid). We didn’t hold ourselves to a budget while we were there…we bought some art, we ate lunch and dinner at restaurants daily, plus went out for drinks, tooled around in old cars, smoked cigars, and tipped liberally…and we ended up just about hitting that. You could certainly spend much, much less if you’re being cost conscious, but if you’re DINKs like us on a bucket list trip, that’s probably a good anchor amount — and we brought about double just to be safe. (Reminder that does not include lodging.)
An aside here about carrying around all that cash, which made me very nervous before we left — particularly because it’s no secret that Americans by default have lots of cash with them while in Cuba. There is virtually no violent crime in Cuba, so in general we didn’t worry much about being mugged. However, we were repeatedly warned not to leave belongings unattended, even for short periods — put something down and it’s liable to walk away. So whatever money we carried around with us, we kept close, generally in front pockets (my husband) or in a crossbody bag I could swing around to the front in crowds (and could keep around my waist at restaurants). Whatever money we left behind where we were staying, we locked in our suitcases. Bring a luggage lock.
OK, back to logistics. Try to change money at the airport when you arrive, even if there is a bit of a line. The currency conversion locations around Havana tend to have extremely long lines (we read of people waiting two hours and saw the lines to back that up…not how you want to spend your time). If you need to change money again after leaving the airport, find a fancy hotel (a few in our group used the Hotel Nacional in Havana) and ask if you can exchange money there. There still may be a wait, but it will be shorter than your other options. Outside of Havana there may be no wait at all at hotels.
You may have heard that Cuba isn’t actually that cheap for travelers. This is true, especially if you’re used to traveling in developing countries. We found that a little added context on money in Cuba helped us understand what was going on with pricing.
Cubans are paid their monthly salary from the government in pesos. This salary is set by the government and from what we were told, Cubans make the equivalent of about $20 per month. To supplement this, Cubans get government ration books. Each month they bring their ration slip and whatever supplemental money is needed (in pesos) to special ration stores to buy things like rice, sugar, chicken, etc. If you’re on a medical diet or you’re pregnant, you get extra coupons for food with the added nutrients you need.
These rationed products can sustain an individual or a family. But there are lots of things a Cuban might want, like beef or shampoo, that aren’t sold in ration stores. Sometimes these can be purchased with CUPs but often they’re sold in CUC stores. Cubans do not get CUCs from the government. So if a Cuban is going to purchase products that are sold in CUCs, they essentially need access to foreign money. Some Cubans get money from relatives outside of Cuba, often family members who have settled in the US.
However, many Cubans access CUCs by getting fees or tips from tourists. We found this was helpful to remember. An extra couple CUCs here or there can make a huge difference in a Cuban’s ability to access things that we consider pretty basic. So we often bargained a little less or rounded tips up a little more.
OK, so what does this mean for you. Generally speaking, shops and restaurants in Cuba take one currency or the other or both. However, CUP shops generally carry staples for locals. It can be useful to have a few CUPs on you as well in case you end up in a place off the beaten path that only accepts pesos. However, as a tourist, 99.9% of the time you will be patronizing places that accept CUCs.
So, if you’re walking around Habana Vieja and stopping for a bite, you’ll generally pay about 10–15 CUCs for lunch, which is not super cheap. Most Cubans could not afford this — that’s over half their monthly salary. A Cuban going to a cafetería that takes CUPs will pay something like 10 pesos (~$0.40) for a sandwich. Leave the touristy areas and pop into the right place, and you can eat for less than a dollar, too.
But those times when you are forking over 20 CUCs for lunch, you can feel a bit better knowing that you’re providing a vital source of discretionary income for the Cubans with whom you interact…at least that’s what we told ourselves.