If you travel a lot, you’re probably used to the fact that the U.S. dollar is accepted (and often preferred) by vendors everywhere. In Cuba, this is not really the case.
There is the Cuban peso, also referred to the CUP (pronounced “coupe”). Cubans receive their wages in these, and it’s good to know that it takes about 25 CUPs to make one dollar — but you don’t really have to worry about it, since only Cubans can use CUPs and only with each other. You can recognize these bills easily because they all feature portraits of Cuban heroes:
A Cuban peso, or “CUP.” Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
As a traveler you can — and must — use CUC’s (pronounced “kooks”), or the “convertible peso.” They’re roughly equivalent to a dollar, and, feature images of monuments instead of people. When you change dollars to CUCs, just because you’re an American, you’ll pay a a 10-13% exchange fee. (If you exchange other currencies — like Euros – you won’t get hit with this fee.) When you swap any left-over CUCs back for U.S. dollars, you won’t have to pay a conversion fee; the exchange will be one-for-one.
It might say something that Cuba’s tourist money is referred to as the CUC (or “kook”). Image courtesy of banknote.ws.
Locals prefer CUCs because they can exchange them freely for CUPs. If all you have are U.S. dollars, Cubans will take them, especially for tips. But when Cubans exchange U.S. dollars for pesos, they also get hit with that 10% exchange fee. As a result, Cubans consider greenbacks to be consolation prizes — better than nothing, but definitely not a favorite.
Lines at local banks are long, and ATMs are very few and very far between. As a result, it’s best to come to Cuba with cash in your pocket.
If you’re on a Fathom cruise, the ship’s reception desk can act as your ATM after the ship reaches Cuba. You’ll need a bank card to do this, and you should be aware you may pay cash advance fees when you do.
All over Havana, you’ll see prices posted in CUCs. In government shops — where you should probably plan to buy all your cigars, coffee, and rum — you’ll see prices posted in both CUPs and CUCs. (You’ll pay the CUC price, of course.) But when buying souvenirs or snacks from small shops, you may discover there is a “special tourist price” that is higher than the posted price in CUCs.
An example: friends spied a street vendor selling churros advertised as 1 CUC per bag. When they bought a bag, they were charged five. (“Oh,” the vendor said. “Special churros for tourists have special price.”) Lesson learned: before making any purchase (or getting in the taxi, or accepting any favor or service), get the price first.
Prices in government-sanctioned shops — the places you should buy cigars, coffee, and rum — are fixed.
Street vendors can and do bargain. The first price quoted will be ridiculously inflated — often up to five times a reasonable price. That said: you have to think about the fact that paying five dollars (instead of a dollar) for a hand-painted wooden fan makes very little difference to you … while earning five dollars instead of a dollar makes all the difference to someone whose monthly take-home pay is around $20.00 USD.
When bargaining with local vendors, don’t get carried away. Small change to you makes a real difference for them.
We saw some tourists bargaining aggressively and rudely, and we were embarrassed for them. Ultimately, for the very few things we purchased, we asked for a twenty percent discount off the stated price … and got that discount without any hesitation.
On a related note: you’ll see many, many, many carved wooden goods (dancers, classic cars, figurines) on sale at souvenir stands. If you like them, by all means bargain for them. When you do, keep in mind that these are mass-produced for pennies in China and have nothing to do with Cuba at all.
In Cuba, the official line is that tipping is not expected, but appreciated. The truth, though, is that everyone who provides a service expects tips.
Tour guides expect 10 CUCs per person per day. Excursion drivers expect around 3 CUCs per trip.
In restaurants, a 1 to 3 CUC tip to your server is fine. Don’t leave it on the table; instead, you should put it directly in your server’s hands.
After musical performances in restaurants, the band will literally “pass the hat.” A one CUC coin per person makes a fine tip.
If you pause to enjoy a street performer’s music or allow someone to lead you from point A to point B, a tip of at least one CUC is expected.
Black Market Goods
On virtually every corner, you’ll be approached by individuals selling cigars or rum — “the best in Cuba!” — for significant discounts over the prices you see in state shops. They’ll tell you they have friends who work at the factory, enabling them to get expensive brand-name cigars and liquors for half-price or less.
Don’t buy these items. When you get home and light up that discounted cigar, you’ll find yourself smoking banana leaves instead of Cuban tobacco — or pouring your friends a drink spiked with tap water or tea instead of white or dark rum.