As discussed in all the guidebooks, there are two currencies in Cuba: The CUC and the CUP.
The CUC or Convertible unit of Currency is for foreigners and each one is worth US$1.
The CUP or Convertible unit of Pesos, is worth 25CUC and is what they use locally. I railed at the two currency system, until my wiser friend S explained the likely reason for it. CUP’s can’t be traded internationally, and as ranked against US$ would fluctuate too much on a daily basis. In order to trade with those countries that are willing, they needed to have an internationally stable currency with which to pay, hence the CUC. Foreigners pay for CUCs, so everyone is happy.
So – buyer beware; pay for something in CUC and get pesos back, which of course you can’t convert to anything else. So – always check your change before you leave. For poor me,who is easily confused, both types of notes say ‘peso’, so I am not sure if I have ever seen an actual local peso.
Generally tourist places only deal with foreigners, so prices are listed in CUC. Some of the places that Cubanos also frequent will show signs saying cuc y cup: cuc and cup accepted. Of course we spend the next three minutes chirping cucycup cucycup cucycup like some demented birds….
We discover in our trip that a school teacher earns about 25 cuc per month; if I compare that to the cost of our room – no wonder every person who has a spare room is renting it out to tourists. Private room rental was allowed by Raul to enable the locals to earn a supplementary income – badly needed for a school teacher that needs to support a family. A PhD doctor, we meet later in the trip, now retired tells us his pension is 12 cuc per month. And we think our pension scheme sucks. Aforementioned professor of Havana University now acts as a tour guide, and earns more from tourists than he probably earned in his whole life. Tax is a flat 50%.
This is a cash economy – it’s very rare to find a place that takes a credit card, which may prove our undoing if we can’t find a way to withdraw money. All the ATM’s we’ve tried so far have proven fruitless. If we manage to get through the ‘enter your pin’ stage, by the end, the screen declines the transaction in polite Spanish. There are Cadecas (local Bureau de Change) dotted around the place where one can exchange money; problem is there is usually a very long queue of people trying to get in. They only let one person in at a time, so the wait can be interminable. It’s good to work out where the queues are the shortest, and hightail it there before the madding crowd finds it.
The Cadecas don’t generally change US $, or if they do they add an additional 10% surcharge. Some of the beach resorts will accept dollars and also Euros, but it’s only limited to the areas where the European sun-seekers congregate. The rest of the country deals in cucycup.
So we thought we had brought enough currency with us, expecting Cuba to be relatively cheap to get around, which it is if you are using the local bus systems. But despite our youthful outlook and the firm belief that we are really only half our age, when our first Casa Particulares host suggest to us that we hire a taxi plus driver for our trip at a cost of 130 cuc per day, that seemed a necessity – door to door transportation? Much better than schlepping suitcases in and out of taxis and on and off buses. I did that backpacking in my long ago youth, and it wasn’t that much fun back in those dim dark days. When we compare this daily rate with many of the individual tours in various places, which come in at around 40 – 50 cuc, this seems reasonable, and we have the flexibility to go where and when we want. However, that does eat into our cash allowance, so at some stage we need to succeed at getting money – the only resort we haven’t tried yet is going into a bank and doing it over the counter; we are now keeping our fingers crossed that we will prevail – we still have three weeks to go.