Contributed by: 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. Here are five easy tips for spending money in Cuba.
1. Pay for (Nearly) Everything in Euros Cash
The easiest way to buy what you need in Cuba is to bring Euros in small bills and pay cash for everything. Taxis, restaurants, casa particulares, artists, privately owned clothing and souvenir shops, most of these vendors will take Euros. In the odd event that they won’t, you could just move on to the next one that does.
While many vendors accept USD, most prefer EUR. Since June 2021, USD cash has been prohibited for deposit into Cuban banks or exchange houses, which means locals can’t deposit the dollars into their accounts to use at stores. So, unless the vendor specifically requests USD, EUR is the way to go.
This advice most accurately applies to tourist areas, and especially Havana. In some provinces you may find vendors that don’t take CUP, and in others you may find vendors that don’t accept foreign currencies. If you’re traveling off-the-beaten-path we recommend you have a mix of local and foreign currencies.
EUR and USD are the easiest currencies to use, but it’s likely that most places will take GBP. As for CAD, MXN and the other Cuba accepted currencies, you may be able to find some people or places that are willing to except them, but it’s uncertain. If you aren’t able to use them “on the streets” you’ll have to exchange them “officially”, meaning at banks or exchange houses. In Tip #3 we explain why that’s not a good idea.
2. Bring a Credit/Debit Card (Even US cards!)
As the government moves towards a more hygienic, cashless economy, many hospitals, clinics, and Covid test centers will only take card payments. If you need medical treatment for illness or injury, your medical insurance (we recommend Asistur) would cover your care, but if you need to pay up front you’ll need a credit or debit card. Some facilities do have the ability to accept US cards but if not, you’ll need to ask a good samaritan if they can pay in exchange for cash.
Many hotels and state-run grocery stores will also not accept cash. Tourists can usually get by without visiting these stores; they are often not well stocked and may have very long lines to enter. Foreign cards will work but US cards most likely will not, so again, you’ll need to ask a friendly stranger to make the purchase for you (offer a tip!).
Pre-Paid Debit Card
The other option is to buy a MLC debit card (see glossary below) that the government offers in the airport or at exchange houses. These pre-paid debit cards come in denominations of US$50-$1000 and can be purchased with any acceptable currency (USD is not accepted).
3. Know the Exchange Rate
Your money is worth far more “on the streets” than in a bank or other official financial institution. For example, if you were to exchange your EUR at the airport, bank, or one of the exchange houses around town, you’d only get about 26CUP to 1EUR, the same if you pull money out of an ATM. However, in reality the current exchange rate is more like 100CUP for 1EUR, depending on the rate in the informal market.
El Toque is a popular resource for these informal rates, but you could always just ask someone. Keep in mind it is based on supply and demand so the rate you get may not be the rate listed.
Privately owned restaurants and other businesses set their own exchange rates, which are higher than the official rate but usually lower than the informal rate, anywhere between 50-90CUP: 1EUR. Prices may be shown in CUP, MLC, EUR, USD and sometimes even CUC. At restaurants sometimes the receipt will show the total in EUR or USD in addition to CUP. The exchange rate isn’t negotiable at private businesses, but even if they don’t give a favorable exchange rate, prices probably won’t be higher than what you pay back home.
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 good.
4. Use Caution When Buying CUP
It’s a good idea to have some CUP on hand, although it is not urgent for you to get some and you can wait for a comfortable situation to exchange. Whenever you make a purchase, the change will always be in CUP, so you will amass some CUP without ever having to change money. But where can you buy more CUP at a decent rate?
‘Por la Izquierda’ The Informal Market
In order to get the more favorable rates, you will need to buy CUP in the informal market or black market or ‘por la izquierda’ (to the left). Although this is very commonly done, and is necessary for locals, it is not legal. At times the government has threatened to crack down on unofficial currency exchange, but the market is thriving and will continue to thrive until the economic situation improves. If you’ve traveled to Argentina and had to deal with the “blue dollar” you get the idea.
While it isn’t dangerous to exchange on the black market, it’s something to be done with caution because there are those that may try to take advantage. I recommend exchanging money with a casa particular, professional guide, or staff in shops and restaurants rather than anyone who approaches you on the street. Sometimes I may accept a lower rate for convenience, as long as I don’t feel I am being ripped off. The person I’m trading with will usually say, “The exchange rate is X but would you take X?”
If you want to buy CUP in the unofficial market, it’s at your own risk. If you’re uncomfortable with it, stick to paying in Euros.
I don’t recommend changing large quantities to CUP because unless you are traveling in non-touristy areas you don’t really need it, and you don’t want a lot left over to change back.
5. Save on Exchange Fees by Bringing USD and EUR
If your home currency is USD, and 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). In particular $1s and $5s are great for tipping.
In general, I recommend a budget of US$100 per day to cover accommodation, food, and transportation. If you’re traveling on a tour with us, you can see the recommended tour budget on the specific tour page and in the Essential Trip Information document that you will receive.
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’s former second currency, 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 foreign cards are considered MLC cards.
Official Rate- The exchange rate offered 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 or private businesses, instead of state institutions. Also known as black market or ‘por la izquierda’. This rate is set by the supply and demand and will fluctuate, and is currently around 100CUP:1USD.