CU money

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 are two types of currency and they’re both called pesos!

The currency tourists primarily use is the convertible peso or CUC. The acronym is derived from CU for CUba and C for Convertible, like CAD is for CAnadian Dollars. The other Cuban peso (CUP) is actually the national currency, and it's necessary for many aspects of life for residents. Both types are essential for Cubans but not for tourists.

One CUC peso is roughly equivalent to one dollar – American dollar, that is. It tags along with the rise and fall of the U.S. dollar and, when the stars align, the Canadian dollar is at par or close. I try to avoid excessive math, sometimes, the exchange rate makes that impossible. At present (2019), 1 CUC peso is equal to $1 USD or $1.35 CAD.

The CUP, however, is worth less than 4 cents; approx. 25 CUPs = 1 CUC, no matter what else is happening in the international currency market. That's because the CUC isn't legal tender anywhere outside of Cuba; it was created for use by tourists. The country is in the process of amalgamating the two currencies but that will take some time.

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.

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.

[For an earlier, more comprehensive version of this monetary information, check out this post from my Cubana de Corazón blog: "Money, money, money...pennies to pesos."]

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. Cubans need both CUCs (tips) and CUPs (wages) to purchase food and basic necessities.

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 a peso (CUC) 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 peso goes 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 CUC/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 35-50 CUC for the week will be plenty. It’s not a huge sum to a Canadian but, for the Cuban workers, it’s essential supplemental income.

[For an expanded commentary on tipping, read this post from Cubana de Corazón: "TIPS: When in doubt, be generous!"]

IMPORTANT final note: You no longer need to set aside 25 CUC for the departure tax! It is now bundled into the fuel tax and other stuff that the airline charges.