If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, congratulations! If all goes well (or horribly awry), it will be unforgettable. Part of the indelibility is because any trip to Cuba – whether for business, pleasure, education, or interchange – presents confounding complexities that may be entirely different from anything you’ve experienced in your travels, regardless of how well-traveled you are. This begins with the so-called double economy, whereby two currencies circulate.
As I write this, there are two legal currencies in Cuba: the convertible peso (abbreviated CUC) and the Cuban peso (abbreviated CUP or MN, which stands for moneda nacional). Both monies can be used by anyone, Cuban or foreign, but the CUC is the one used in restaurants, taxis, hotels and the like; one ‘kook’ as it’s called, equals US$0.82 and is the currency you’ll be using almost your entire trip. For this reason, the Cuban peso (equivalent to just under four US cents) is often written off as an oddity by visitors – an anachronism of a system still trying to fully recover from the economic crash of the 1990s and adjust to the ongoing global financial crisis.
But to fully appreciate the ongoing transformations in Cuba, the reality of day-to-day life, and how the double economy works in practice, its helpful to give some pesos cubanos a try. To use this ‘local’ currency is also to participate in history: one of the key goals of the economic model revamp is to unify the two currencies, something underscored by President Raúl Castro in his recent speech to the National Assembly. Use Cuban pesos now and you can tell friends and family: ‘I was in Cuba when…’
Obtaining Cuban pesos is easy at any Cadeca (the national chain of currency exchange houses); once you exchange your foreign currency into CUCs, you can change those into CUPs. My advice is to change about 5 CUC worth, which will give you 120 CUP. Here are some of the easiest ways to get a feel for how Cuban pesos work.
Buy a newspaper: The dailies Granma and Juventud Rebelde are sold exclusively in pesos cubanos and are not only a great way to use this currency, but will also give you a feel for Cuban journalism. Heavy on national and Latin American news, with an emphasis on sports and culture, these newspapers help visitors plug in quickly to what’s important locally. They cost 1 peso when sold on the street or 20 centavos in press kiosks dotting every neighborhood; other publications including the cutting-edge Calle del Medio and theme-specific magazines for women, youth, and health issues, are also sold at these kiosks in pesos cubanos.
Jump in a fixed-route taxi: See all those pre-1960 Detroit beauties plying the city streets? Many are collective, fixed-route taxis charging 10 pesos cubanos for each leg of a ride (20 at night) and can be used by foreigners. Typically they hold six (or more) passengers and are hailed by simply sticking your arm out parallel to the ground. The most useful routes for visitors are in Vedado along Línea and Calle 23 to the Capitolio; in Miramar along 3ra Avenida to Vedado; and from Neptuno and Consulado in Centro Habana, also to Vedado. While those on organized tours and people-to-people programs will have their transport pre-arranged, these taxis run 24 hours and so can be tried out once official programming has concluded.
Snack Attack!: Pesos cubanos are also handy for procuring snacks to hold off hunger during long bus rides, tours, or meetings. While much of the snack food sold in Cuba is a greasy, sugary health hazard, (reflecting local preferences as evidenced by the national survey on diet), there are some nutritious options including fresh-roasted peanuts, all sorts of tropical fruit including bananas, mangoes, papaya and pineapple (much of it organic) – and sesame crackers.
Patronize a bookstore: Cubans are fanatical readers, a cultural phenomenon which can be fully appreciated by heading to a local bookstore – something you may not even be able to do in your own country, they’re becoming such a rarity these digital days. But in Cuba, bookstores are a neighborhood resource, where reading material is sold in pesos cubanos. In Havana, two good options are Ateneo, on Línea near Calle 12 and a similar store on Calle 25, between Calles O and P. Since books are among the informational items permitted entry into the US under Treasury guidelines for travel to Cuba, travelers from the United States can legally buy and bring books home.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012. Conner is also the brainchild of Cuba Libro, the island’s first English-language café and bookstore.