MONEY: Which currency should you use?
Cuba is a complicated country, especially when it comes to money, honey. The first thing you need to know is that there WERE two types of currency but, as of 2021, there's only one! The Cuban peso (CUP) is the national currency and the peso formerly known as the CUC is now defunct.
When visiting Cuba, my recommendation is that you exchange money at the airport’s bank kiosk upon arrival, where they can accept both Canadian and American currency. I suggest changing most or all of what you anticipate spending during your stay. You can also exchange Canadian money at most resorts or larger hotels but they sometimes run out of coins and small bills, which are needed for tips, and their rates may not be quite as good as a bank's would be. It may be possible to use USD and CAD but please stick to paper money (at least for tips) as it can be difficult for coins to be exchanged.
One further monetary note pertains to plastic money. Don’t plan to use your debit card – there are no ATMs for foreign money! Credit cards can be used for some things at a resort, but only if they are linked to Canadian banks. Things are in flux right now, though, so you may be able to use US-linked credit cards to withdraw money at a bank but don't count on it! If you only have credit cards affiliated with American financial institutions, it's best to take the cash you think you will need during the trip.
TIPS: What’s appropriate to give?
Tips are a vital part of the income for most people because wages are incredibly low in Cuba, and tipping is not limited to the housekeeping and restaurant/bar staff. You can use CUP, USD or CAD but avoid giving foreign coins because it is very difficult, if not impossible, for these to be exchanged; banks will only change paper money.
My general rule is, if someone assists you in any way, especially if it is beyond what you would expect, give a tip and/or a gift to that person. Tip the guy who lugs your luggage and the one who takes you sailing. Tip the people who provide you with transportation – bus and horse carriage drivers, or the horseman, if you go for a trail ride. Tip the wait staff at every meal and the maid every day.
On my first trip to Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, I was advised by long-time guests to leave money (about $1 USD) on the pillow each morning for the maid. Sometimes I leave small gifts too – like notebooks and pens, hair accessories, dollar-store jewelry, gum or candy. At the bars, I tend to tip sporadically, mostly because I don’t always have a place to carry money (but I play catch-up later).
By now, you may be thinking you’ll need to a bank loan to cover the tips but, don’t worry, tipping in Cuba is not like it is in Canada – a few pesos go a long way! That’s the base rate, as far as I’m concerned. For tour guides, taxi rides and other services, I’ll give more. When in doubt, I figure it’s better to err on the side of generosity!
If you budget about $5-10/day for tips and throw in a little extra for the little extras, you should be fine. I’ve never actually added up what I tip, so I guessing that $50-100 for the week will be plenty. For Cuban workers, tips are essential supplemental income.