Contributor: Sarah Arizaga
Just when I figured out how to manage the CUC like a pro, Cuba went and changed up their dual currency economy during the pandemic. Now even veteran Cuba travelers are left clutching their dizzy heads trying to understand the hows, whats and whys of the new system. The currency shortages and inflation can make your jaw drop, but with a little know-how, prices are similar to before. These are the lessons I learned on my recent trip to Havana that I want to share to help you minimize currency shock. Starting with the most important:
1. Pay for Everything in Euros Cash
If you want to stop reading now, you’ll be ok in nearly all situations, but there are important special situations which necessitate this additional advice:
2. Bring a Credit/Debit Card (Yes, even US cards)
I’ll explain why in just a moment, but first, let’s define a few terms.
Glossary of Cuban Money Terms
CUP- Cuban Peso, the only official currency in Cuba. CUP has no value outside of Cuba which is why it’s not considered a “hard currency”.
CUC- Cuban Convertible Peso. Cuba used to be a dual-currency economy, but as of 2021 the CUC was taken out of circulation.
MLC- Moneda Libremente Convertible (Freely Convertible Money) aka “hard currency”. For tourist purposes it usually means EUR & USD, but it could also be any other exchangeable currency. If you see an exchange rate for MLC, that’s because it trades like its own currency for locals, via electronic transfers.
MLC Card- Any credit/debit card linked to an account backed by hard currency (e.g. EUR, USD, GBP, CAD, etc). All your cards will be considered MLC cards.
Official Rate- The exchange rate you get when you change money in Cadecas (exchange houses), ATMs, Banks, Hotels, and with state-run entities. This rate is static and set by the government, not the market. CUP is pegged to USD at 24 or 25CUP:1USD.
Unofficial Rate- The exchange rate you get when you trade with individuals, instead of state institutions. For example, taxi drivers, casa particulares, privately owned restaurants, friends, “friends” of friends, people you meet on social media, etc. This rate is set by the supply and demand markets, and is currently around 100CUP:1USD.
A Breakfast Time Example
On my way to the airport for my flight home, I stopped by Bone’Ma in Vedado to get a breakfast to-go.
Bone’Ma breakfast – eggs, toast, cheese, ham and bacon 330CUP plus 40CUP for to-go container = 370CUP
Side Note: You will always pay for to-go containers, “termo-pak” as they say locally. It can cost up to $1.50!
But what does 370CUP really mean? For simplicity’s sake, this example uses only USD.
If Sarah had exchanged USD at the airport (24CUP:1USD) = $15.42
If I had changed money at a Cadeca or pulled money from an ATM, this breakfast would have been hotel room services prices, no thank you!
If Sarah had exchanged USD in “unofficial market” (100CUP:1USD)= $3.70
Wow, what a steal! At the street rate, all of the sudden those fried eggs taste like sunshine and the toast tastes toastier. But isn’t it illegal to change in the black-market? Yes, but read on.
Actually, Sarah paid in USD at the restaurant’s rate (50CUP:1USD) = $7.40
I had an “Are you serious?” moment when they told me their exchange rate. It was the stingiest rate I’d come across, most private restaurants offered 70-90CUP. That made the breakfast pricey compared to what I’d paid in the past. No biggie, but an important lesson in navigating Cuba’s currency situation.
3. If you’re budget conscious and prices are in CUP, ask about the exchange rate before you buy
Prices are either shown in CUP, MLC, EUR, USD or for those living in the past, CUC (same as MLC). Sometimes the exchange rate is on the menu, or the receipt shows the price in multiple currencies. A restaurant’s exchange rate isn’t negotiable, but the prices probably won’t be more than you’d pay back home, so don’t sweat it unless you need to.
If you’re on a tour with us, take comfort, if the guide recommends a restaurant, it’s because they know the exchange rate is solid.
The Problem with USD
You might be wondering why I am advising you to bring EUR when I myself paid in USD. This is because I didn’t realize I could pay for everything in EUR and only brought large bills which are better for changing. While everyone accepts USD, EUR is more versatile. Since June 2021, USD cash has been prohibited for deposit into Cuban banks or exchange, which means locals can’t deposit into their MLC accounts to use at the special MLC stores. Why not pay with the most useful currency, and make life a tiny bit easier for locals? Next time I’ll bring EUR in 10s and 20s.
4. If your home currency is USD, bring most of your budget in EUR, and a little extra in USD
If you don’t want to get stuck with a lot of extra EUR that you have to change back when you get home, just bring the majority of your budget in EUR and the rest in USD (small bills) which can also be used for tips. Each website for our tours will give you a suggested budget, otherwise I recommend $100/day depending on your spending habits.
The Other Currencies
I only have first-hand experience with EUR and USD, but I read from British travelers that GBP was not easy to use in shops and restaurants. As for CAD, MXN and the other Cuba accepted currencies, you may be able to trade them “unofficially”, but if no one is buying you will have to change them at the official places and take that loss.
If you want to buy some CUP, 10-20MLC worth should be enough. Whenever you buy something, the change will always be in CUP, so that’s what you can use places where CUP is more appropriate, such as with street vendors or for tipping. I’m told that in the provinces, many places won’t even take CUP. If that doesn’t say something about the value of local currency, I don’t know what does.
5. Your change will always be in CUP, use for small purchases and tipping
Use up your CUP before the end of your trip, because although you can use it to buy snacks in the airport, you don’t want a lot left over to change back.
‘Por la Izquierda’ The Unofficial Market
Back to the subject of the legality of this market. I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous, but it is illegal, and yet, it’s the way things are done. The problem is that the government is not selling MLC, but it has created an economy where people need MLC to buy necessary products. Sadly, Cubans also need this money to leave, which they are doing in droves. So, although the government has threatened to crack down on unofficial currency exchange, the market is thriving and will continue to thrive. If you’ve traveled to Argentina and had to deal with the “blue dollar” you get the idea.
Considering the dubious nature of dealing ‘por la izquierda’ (to the left), travel providers hesitate to suggest this, for fear of being blamed if the traveler gets a bad deal (and, you know, it being against the law and all). If you want to buy CUP in the unofficial market, it’s at your own risk. If that doesn’t appeal to you, just pay in Euros.
Personally, if I want to buy CUP, I get a recommendation from a friend, or ask at casa particulares and restaurants if anyone is buying EUR. When I change money with friends, they are always clear: “The exchange rate is X but would you take X?” To avoid being ripped off, find out the going rate is and if you want to accept less, that is up to you. El Toque is a popular resource for these informal rates, but you could always just ask someone.
Toward a Cashless Economy
Cash got a bad rap during the pandemic as people were no longer willing to ignore its gross germy-ness, and Cuba is no exception. As the government moves towards a more hygienic, cashless economy, there are some shops which will not accept cash. These are mostly state run, and no issue if you have a card by a non-US bank, but what are you supposed to do if you are from the US? Well, you could buy the MLC debit card that the government offers in the airport but again you’re losing major value. The best thing to do is to avoid these shops or ask a local to buy for you and give them cash (add a small tip!).
The place you are most likely to come across this “cards only” rule is with Covid testing for your return home. Some clinics, including the testing site at the airport, do accept US cards, which is why you need to bring yours. Also, hospitals only take cards, but fortunately your insurance will cover your medical treatment. Again, if you’re on a tour with Cuban Adventures, you needn’t worry, the guide will help you with arrangements.
Real Price Examples
Here are a few examples of local expenses I had in Havana in 2022 and how I paid.
Taxi from Airport – US$25
Taxi from Havana to Vedado- US$5
Water 5 liter – 48CUP (US$.64*)
HomeDeli Pizza delivery – 3 pizzas – 10% discount for paying in MLC (100:1) – US$13
Amore Gelato – 2 small ice creams – 160CUP (US$3.20*)
Casa Miglis- Upscale dinner for 2 people (2 appetizers, cocktail, beer, 2 entrees), menu in CUC(!)- US$55
Jama Restaurant- Mid-range lunch for 3 people (Appetizer, 3 entrees, 1 cocktail, 1 beer, 1 soft drink) –
Bill shown in CUP, EUR, & USD (80:1) – US$34
Bar Morro 52- Drinks for 3 people – 1,400CUP (US$18*)
Havana Club 7 year (1ltr) plus Large Bottle of Coke – 1000CUP ($13.33*)
*I exchanged USD with friends for between 50-75CUP:1USD, less than the street rate.