Money in Cuba

There are a lot of articles on the internet already about Cuban money, here’s a 10 cent version:

  • The national money is called Moneda Nacional, or MN, or CUP, or peso. Tourists don’t use this.
  • The official currency is Convertible Pesos, or CUP, or dollar, or peso. Tourists use these.

The exchange rate is approximately $1 = 1 CUC = 25 CUP.

If someone is selling something that should be very cheap (like an orange) and the cost sounds very expensive (like 10), then it’s in CUP. If you don’t have CUP, you either need CUC coins of less than 1 CUC or you’ll get ripped off, especially if you don’t know the look of the different bills.

Example: a bottle of water may be listed as “$25.” You give them a 5 CUC note and they give you back 4 CUPs. That means you just paid ~$5 for a bottle of water and got back about 1 penny.

How do you convert your money?

Since you can’t exchange into Cuban money outside of Cuba and your US bank card won’t work there, you have to carry cash with you into the country. I did some research and found that in Cuba, they charge a 10% surcharge to convert from US dollars into CUC, but only 3% from Euros. So we exchanged $800 into Euros in Miami (3% fee), then exchanged it to CUCs in Cuba (another 3% fee), thus saving 6%. (Though of course we had 100 Euros stolen, so it was a wash.)

DO NOT CHANGE MUCH MONEY AT THE AIRPORT! If you need a cab, change only enough for that and change the rest at a reputable hotel in Havana.

How much money do you need to bring?

This was a challenging question to find the answer to.

First, we had prepaid for most of it: the tour, our flights, visas, rides to and from the airport in Havana, and the extra night in Havana.

Second, for spending money, we changed $800 into Euros and then to CUC. We split that between the 2 of us. Then we brought about $500 in USD that stayed strapped to us at all times. We broke into that on the last day in order to tip and buy a few souvenirs.

There weren’t many souvenirs to buy and the cost of most of our meals was included. Check with your tour but you may need to bring less than you think.

Things we learned

We found out later that what we paid for the ride to/from the airport was about double what we would have paid in-country.

Booze, cigars, and coffee at the airport is the exact same price as anywhere else. You may as well buy it there. And it’s a good way to use up the last of your currency as it’s completely worthless once you leave the country.

 

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Cuba – Gifts

We had been told in all of our documentation (and in articles online) that the Cuban people have a lot of trouble finding and affording some basic things like: soap, hand creams, notepads, pens, etc. So I had gone to a dollar store and brought with me a small bag of these things, along with candy for kids.

We asked Tony, our guide, over and over about how to give these gifts. He would say things like “give them when someone has done something nice for you.” But the problem is we didn’t have a ton of reason to interact with people who weren’t: A) our guides, B) our hosts, or C) people selling us things. We were told that the hosts tend to be among the wealthier people in the town, so they don’t need these things as much. And of course our guides are getting huge tips from us at the end. And then people selling us things are already getting a potentially largely marked up price. So, then, who??

We started leaving our gifts to the hosts and hoping that they would get distributed somehow. But it felt wrong. Like one of our hosts just watched as Tina, Deepak, Dave, and I sortof unloaded our bags of dollar store stuff onto her table. But it felt almost disrespectful as her home was well-equipped and she was clearly not poor.

We saw beggars only a couple times, asking for soap and pens. I gave one beggar a notebook (I didn’t have a pen) and she pocketed it quickly and went back to begging for a pen. Again, didn’t feel right.

Also, Barbara had asked me when we left for the bus trip (knowing that we would be back), “You didn’t leave anything in the room, right? Nothing like soap or money?” I answered no, wondering if she meant that I should be leaving something…

There were 2 things we brought that ended up being useful.

One was guitar strings. My dad mentioned it right before we left so I grabbed a couple packs the day before our flight. Dave gave them to a guy who let him play the guitar and he seemed genuinely happy.

The other was over the counter painkillers. I talked a bit to Barbara about gifts and told her I’d like to find a clinic to give pain relievers to. She explained to me that medicines were incredibly hard to find and then were very expensive. She said that “Motrin” specifically is around $1 per pill. So I ended up giving her some individually packaged Tylenol and Ibuprofen. She and her brother looked so happy and hugged me.

In a funny coincidence, I had brought some stickers I found that had Mickey Mouse on them. It turns out that Barbara loves Disney, so when she told me that, I pulled out the stickers and she lit up! And then as we were leaving, I gave her some money and then pulled out a single US dollar. She smiled and kissed it and put it on her altar (presumably to bring more US money to her).

Also, at Barbara’s house, we had a miscommunication with the agency about where we would be staying. Barbara was able to convince the agency to let us stay at her place even though the room was taken, so we stayed in her bedroom and she slept with her daughter. In her bathroom, I noticed she was not lacking for soap, cream, razors, etc. All the things we had been told them couldn’t get!

On the last day, we were alone, the tour having ended a day earlier, we went to an alley that was beautifully painted. On this last day I decided I would carry candy around with me to finally find somewhere to leave it or gift it. The alley was right by a playground, so I saw tons of kids. But how do you approach them? I can be a little shy, especially when I don’t really understand the cultural implications of literally being a stranger who is giving free candy to kids. So I saw a sweet 8 or so year old girl and just handed her a whole bag of jawbreakers and walked away. Her eyes lit up and she ran away with her friends to eat it.

I found this fantastic article about gifting, I wish I had read it before we went to Cuba. In the end, I wish I hadn’t brought those things with me. The Cuban people are not as poor as we think. They have their basic needs cared for and those who are enterprising have much more than the basics.

So if you’re going to Cuba, bring: things useful to a specific type of person (musician=guitar strings, artist=paints, student=dictionary, reader=literature in Spanish) and pain relievers in small packages.

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Cuba – Carteras

Instead of advertising, the billboards all had nationalist sayings on them. Everything from eschewing the US blockade to pride in sports, and of course, lots of Che.

This one is about the US blockade:

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This one is about Cuban sports:

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This one is about socialism:

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This one says “Ideas make us a nation of fighters”:

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This one _____

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This one is about the CDR:

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“Socialism or Death”

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Che:

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About the blockade:

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At the Che Memorial

At the Che Memorial

The People:

At the Che Memorial

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Saving money, it’s in your hands:

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How beautiful is Cuba:

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The revolution is invincible:

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Cuba – the flight out

We had to leave at 5:30 AM to check in to our 9 AM flight. Barbara was very sweet and woke up to send us off. We gave her 20 CUC as a tip and I gave her a $1 US bill. She put it on her altar and gave us big hugs goodbye.

When we arrived at the airport, it wasn’t even open yet! Note for next time, find out when the airport opens…regardless of when the flight leaves.

We got through immigration with zero questions. They stamped our passports with an entry stamp (which they back-dated…is that legal?) and an exit. Security was a simple metal detector, but you had to take your shoes off.

When the duty free shop opened, everyone rushed in to buy their rum. We bought 3 bottles, each was about $5. We also bought a few more cigars with the last of our CUCs, they were the exact same price as in the hotel in Havana. Note: if you go to Cuba, just buy your rum and cigars at the duty free.

We arrived in Miami and were pretty much waved through customs. They asked if we had bought anything and we just pointed at our duty free bag. Of course we had more and had receipts and it was within the limit, but this seemed like the easiest answer.

I took some notes about some things to bring on a trip like this next time:

  • a sports bra
  • a fleece for each of us
  • acidophilus
  • a smaller backpack
  • anti-itch cream
  • download more music!
  • candied ginger
  • more Clif bars
  • emergen-c or something to change the taste of plain water

Also, everyone boiled their water in their homes and offered it to us. We weren’t sure if it was okay at first. Once we started drinking it, it turned out to be fine. So maybe next time I’d use my water bottle more.

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Cuba – Day 9

With the tour over, this was our day to explore Havana. We already had our bearings, so it was much easier to get around.

We went to find the coffee place we had heard about to bring some back and ran into Jim and Allen. We went with them to a hotel where you can buy coffee and cigars and get receipts for customs, as well as we could change a little more money since we were short for tips and such. This would be a great time to talk about how much money is needed for a trip of this length. Read more here. 

We bought a box of 10 Montecristo cigars and a kilo of coffee (total $45).

We then took an old American car cab to the place I had been excited about, an English-language bookstore called Cuba Libro.  Unfortunately, the owner was rude to us, even though I said I had tried to contact her to bring whatever she would need from the US. I think she felt like too many Americans coming to Cuba would be a bad thing, which means she thought we were part of the problem.

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I refused to let this sully my last day, so we went on to Parque John Lennon, a park which had a statue of John Lennon in it.

At Parque John Lennon, Havana

Then we walked to the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, one of the few places where there weren’t many tourists and we didn’t have to pay to go in. The old white statues and aboveground graves went on for miles in either direction.

Colon Cemetery, Havana

Colon Cemetery, Havana

Even though there’s not much shade and it’s quite warm, you can linger and explore. The scale is hard to imagine, but look at the size of this one, I’m the speck in front:

Colon Cemetery, Havana

We then checked for restaurants in the area on an iphone app I had. One nearby that was recommended was Cafe Lala (which has now changed names to Karma). Decent food, lovely setting, and nice non-alcoholic frozen drinks to cool down.

In front of the cemetery is a taxi stand, so we grabbed an ancient Russian car taxi (I managed to talk the price down! My Spanish is getting better🙂 and went to Callejon de Hammel, a painted alley.

Despite the constant “where you from?” from guys looking to separate us from our money, the alley was actually spectacular and there was only one other tourist there.

These are real bathtubs:

Callejon de Hammel

Chickens add to the ambiance:

Callejon de Hammel

After all this walking, we were ready to put our feet up and pack for the early morning flight. We walked back and asked Barbara for dinner (which ended up being $5 each once we paid her for everything).

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Cuba – Day 8

Dave’s birthday!!!

We drove pretty much all day and arrived back in Havana around 4PM. There was some sort of miscommunication about where we were staying (because we were going to stay an extra night after the tour was over) and Rafael walked us to Barbara’s, but she already had someone staying there. She called the agency and gave them a piece of her mind. In the end, she gave us her bedroom and she stayed in her daughter’s room.

For dinner, we ate at her house, knowing that the food is just as good as we would get at a restaurant. After dinner, we went to the cannon blast ceremony at the old fort (totally missable). Then we went for drinks with Jim/Allen and Tina/Deepak.

Lighting the cannons

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Cuba – Day 7

As I mentioned in  my last post, Trinidad is a beautiful, old town that was the highlight for me of the trip. Cobblestone streets, homes painted bright or pastel colors, friendly people, artisans, musicians, and even some things to buy.

We left the group for the day and wandered around Trinidad. We found a wifi park, walked to the Plaza Mayor, bought some shirts, bought some art (which was rolled into a cardboard tube for us), and generally had a relaxing morning.

At 3PM we met the group for salsa lessons. They were very basic, but fun. Here’s a photo of Jim and Allen dancing:

Jim and Allen dancing

After lessons, we got on the bus to go to a sunset picnic on the beach. We picked up a 4 piece band and some food and drove about 30 minutes out to a secluded area with a tiny beach.

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At one point, Tony begged Dave to play something on the guitar, so he grabbed it and played some covers. We had a sweet “picnic” with spaghetti, beans/rice, squash, and some very strong drinks called Canchanchara – rum, honey, and soda water.

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