A Traveler's Guide to Cuba's Dual Currency System

The old streets of Cuba offer a unique beauty
 even in their various states of disrepair
Something that all travelers must understand before getting to Cuba is their unique currency situation. They have not one, but two currencies you'll need to get a grasp on before you even think about changing money at a cadeca (what they call their money changing stations). Initially, it seems like a much bigger ordeal than it actually is - but with a little preparation and knowledge, exchanging and using money in Cuba can be stress free and enjoyable. The following sections will give you all of the info necessary to successfully navigate Cuba's somewhat bizarre currency situation.

Before we get into the dual currency issue, it's important to note that if you have a credit or debit card tied to a bank in the USA, it will not work anywhere in Cuba. You don't even need to bring it or bother trying because, until further notice, they are no bueno. Even if you're from outside of the states, but your card is tied to an American parent company, it still won't function. This means you need to come up with a tentative budget and bring cash - potentially a lot of it too - because ATMs are out of the question.

Now back to the currencies - the most important one and what you'll be using primarily is the Cuban Convertible Peso or the CUC. The value is essentially on par with the US dollar (as of Mar 2017 it took about $1.03 to get 1CUC). Most restaurants, buses and museums require payment in this currency so you'll want to have plenty of it on hand. The other currency is simply the Cuban Peso or CUP. You can find some peso food stalls around Havana and some shared cabs apparently take the CUP as well. The exchange rate on the CUP is extremely favorable - you'll get about 24 CUP for just 1USD at the cadecas. If you want a cheap meal, find a place that takes pesos and you can get two personal sized pizzas and a couple cans of soda for the equivalent of 3USD total. It's amazing really, and not even that bad of food. There's a fantastic ice cream shop named Coppelia where you can pay one CUP per scoop. It's beyond cheap and insanely delicious, especially after walking around in the near tropical heat all day. There's also some good fresh juice bars where you can get a glass full of goodness for 10 CUP - which isn't even 50 cents! You don't need to take out a ton of CUP, but you should have 200-300 on hand.

Just another beautiful classic car sitting on the side of the road

I advise everyone going to Cuba to look at pictures of both currencies to help familiarize yourself with them in order to protect yourself from scams. The CUC bills all will say convertible somewhere on the bill. Most of the CUP monies have an image of Cuban patriot on them and the coins typically have a star on one side as well. Count your change and check to make sure it's in the correct currency because the difference between the two is staggering.

Finally, when you're at the cadeca to exchange money, it's required to have a passport. Set your passport on the desk of the worker when you get called in along with the money you want exchanged. It helps if you tell them how much you're giving them, and they will typically recount it in front of you to confirm the amount. If you don't know how to say it in Spanish, just say whatever amount that you handed them in English and they may still understand. They will then exchange your money for CUC. If they don't count it in front of you - make sure you do before leaving the building to be certain it all appears right. At this point, if you want to get some CUP, hand the worker a 10 or 20 CUC bill and ask for 'moneda nacional'. 10CUC will get you 240CUP. They'll hand you another stack of money, this time in CUP. You should use common sense and keep these in separate pockets or different wallets so you don't accidentally confuse the two after having a few mojitos at the Bodeguita del medio.

There are cadecas scattered throughout Havana. Even some in the older, more tourist heavy parts of town. Personally, I would only exchange enough money for a day or two at a time, and keep the rest of your cash locked up in your accommodation so as to not put all of your eggs in one basket. As is the case anywhere else in the world, you can opt to exchange money at the airport (and you may need to if you're picking up a taxi) but the rates are slightly worse there then at the cadecas in town. Money exchange sites can be found outside of Havana as well. Basically anywhere a tourist goes, one can most likely stumble on a cadeca.

What currency should I bring and how much?
In front of the Museo de la Revolucion
My last word of advice is to avoid bringing USD if you can help it. Anywhere you exchange them, there is a 10% fee and oftentimes an additional 3% tapped on top of that. For those of you who don't want to do the math in your head, it means that for each 100USD that you exchange, $13 of it will be lost to fees. I bought Canadian dollars through my bank before leaving the states and used only CAD while in Cuba to avoid the harsh fees imposed on USD exchanges.

As far as how much you should bring - this entirely depends on the length of your trip and what kind of itinerary you've got planned out. As a point of reference, here's what my wife and I did: We were in Cuba for about 4 days. We had already paid for our AirBnB online beforehand so our biggest single expense was already taken care of. We brought along about 550 Canadian dollars total for the two of us and used it for everything from food and tips to museums and taxis. We had a couple of meals at cheap peso stalls and a few at higher end CUC places. We came home with about 75 CAD left - but it is always preferable to bring too much than to run out of cash before you head home.

Understanding the currency in Cuba will go a long ways in making sure that your trip to this beautiful island is rewarding and financially reasonable. At first glance, their currency situation is overwhelming and confusing, but there's no reason to let this be a deterrence from visiting the country. I hope this guide has helped you get a better grasp on the Cuban dual currency situation, but please feel free to post any lingering questions or comments below and I'll do my best to respond. 

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