Before leaving for the trip I read to expect to not be able to use a debit or credit card in Cuba. It’s unknown whether or not American debit or credit cards work in Cuba and if so where they may work. In fact, I only saw one business with a MasterCard logo on its front door about halfway through the trip. It was so shocking I took a picture of it. I did not notice any other businesses that accept cards and I did not notice anyone using a card to pay. That being said, you need to bring enough cash with you to survive the entire trip.
Here is an example of a transaction…I handed the cashier 50 cents in exchange for a personal size pan pizza and he handed me back three $1 bills. Confused? You should be. There are two different currencies in Cuba: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso. The Cuban Peso is the money locals deal in. The Cuban Convertible Peso is the money tourists deal in. Tourist money is referred to as CUC (pronounced kook like a crazy person) and the Cuban Peso is referred to as pesos.
The value of the CUC and the Cuban Peso is based on the value of the U.S. dollar…
1 CUC = 1 USD
24 Cuban Pesos = 1 USD
The Lonely Planet guide book I bought prior to the trip listed three different budget suggestions per day based on CUC. I brought enough money to be on the high end of the medium budget. I also read that if you bring USD to exchange you get hit with an extra 10% fee. Because of this I brought Euros and Canadian dollars with me. Between the two different Cuban currencies and spending time in Mexico I ended up using six different types of money on this trip. And in case you didn’t know, Canadian $100 bills smell like maple syrup. Seriously.
I exchanged money at Cadeca’s which are currency exchange service’s throughout the country, although I read most are in large cities. Just like checking in for your housing, you need to have your passport with you every time. I can only assume the Cuban government keeps track of how much money you exchange, where you exchanged it, and where you stayed. Big Brother in a society with no internet.
The only time I saw police when I was in Cuba was outside of Cadeca’s. They were there to protect the money and their “armored truck”. Their armored trucks remind me of shitty American vans from the 80’s. Not so armored looking.
Overall I ended up getting murdered on the exchange rate. After adding it up after the trip (they give you a detailed receipt), I ended up paying a 17.5% fee to exchange money. Overall I only paid 9.65% for Canadian Dollars and 19.5% for Euros. Why? I have no clue. Not much in Cuba makes sense.
Speaking of not much making sense in Cuba, Coppelia ice cream shop in Cienfuegos charged me 1 peso for four scoops of ice cream. Coppelia ice cream shop in Havana charged me $4CUC for the same four scoops of ice cream. Why does one business charge four U.S. cents for ice cream and the same business in a different city charges $4USD?
The last day I was there I wanted to get rid of my coins. I accidentally paid in CUC instead of pesos. When I asked to have my change back they refused to give it to me.
The first time I had pesos with me I tipped a salsa band with it. They seemed overly appreciative of the tip I gave them which made me think about it. Because I was tipping in pesos I didn’t think it was much money (one peso = four US cents). In the end, I mistakenly tipped them $6USD.
As mentioned above, my daily budget was based on CUC and after getting hit with a 17.5% fee, I noticed my money disappearing quickly. Towards the end of the trip I had to really cut back my spending in order to not run out of money. I took what I thought would be waaaaaaayyyyy too much money and in the end I left with 2.8% of the money I brought. And I didn’t know the $29CUC exit fee was included in the price of my flight or else I would have left with 1.6% of the money I brought with me. I cut it real close at the end.
I heard a story about a German guy who ran out of money. The last day of his trip his flight from Baracoa to Havana was cancelled. He was supposed to fly home from Havana later that day and now he had to drive there…with no money. The people I met who told me the story and were supposed to be on the same cancelled flight shared a colectivo with him to Trinidad. He couldn’t pay his portion of the trip and they weren’t sure what ended up happening to him. Case in point: don’t run out of money if you travel to Cuba! And don’t get stuck in Baracoa at the end of your trip! It’s really far from Havana.
Considering its a third world country, Cuba is not cheap to travel within. Bring way more money than you think you’ll need and then bring more than that. The only thing I paid for ahead of time was the flight within the country. Everything else was cash.