One of the most confusing aspects of traveling to Cuba is converting your American dollars in order to get the best the conversion rate. We’re going to take this piece by piece. Let’s first look at the facts, because really a lot of this discussion is opinion and will come down to your personal preferences.

The most important fact of them all is that your American bank and debit card will work no where in Cuba. Let me repeat, any sort of payment card with that FDIC logo on the back will not work in Cuba.Do not play yourself, your American debit card does not work in cuba. That means no American debit or credit cards will work. Courtesy of that America embargo sis, means you have to bring all your cash with you. All of it plus some just in case funds. You cannot anywhere on the island access your bank account if you run out of money and the headache of getting a local to go to Western Union for you, don’t play yourself. 

Cuba is safe, so you’re fine coming into the country with 1,000 plus dollars. But that is what makes Cuba expensive. Not that you spend all that money, cause Cuba can be done cheaply but that you have to bring all the money with you, just in case.

The American dollar, because of that embargo which is still largely in place, is penalized with an additional 10% fee on top of the standard 3% exchange rate fee. That means the dollar officially exchanges for 87 cuban cents. Not cute. There are two currencies in Cuba. The Cuban Convertible Pesos otherwise known as CUC, is a tourist currency. The Cuban Peso or CUP what the locals use. You at minimum just need to remember that there are two different currencies that look distinctly different so you don’t get swindled.

The cuban currencies, cuban convertible peso and cuban peso.
Top: CUP, locals use.
Bottom: CUC, tourists use.
One CUC is worth 25 CUP.

Now there’s a whole lot of opinion around what’s the best way to convert. There are banks and cadecas all throughout Cuba where you can exchange monies and none of the rates vary that much. Cadecas are officially known as “casa de cambio,” they are governement owned currency exchange houses, they are typically more accessible than the banks with better hours and slightly better exchange rate. You will always need your passport to exchange money, do not wait in those long lines to realize you forgot your passport.

Some will suggest converting your dollars to euros or canadian dollars at your local bank in order to get around the penalty fee in Cuba. This totally depends on the exchange rate and especially with all the elections and political things happening, that can fluctuate. You will either have to do some math based on the exchange rate your bank offers or just eat the 13% penalty. Unfortunately, this also depend on your locale and your bank offering foreign currency. A breeze if you live in New York City or Houston, not so much in Wichita.

This is where I made my mistake, the Banco Metropolitano an official bank in Cuba, posts exchange rates on their website. THEY ARE NOT ACCURATE. Based on those rates I exchanged for Mexican pesos at my local bank and took as bad of hit as if I had just eaten the 13% penalty. My friend on the other hand, who speaks decent Spanish, brought dollars and was able to find locals who would exchange one for one with her so other than the little bit she exchanged at the airport to get a taxi she came out on top. Now if you are a person who is really anxious while traveling, keep that in mind when you make a decision on how to convert your money. Would you feel comfortable finding locals to exchange with or does ease of mind + comfort matter more.

The CUC is worth twenty five Cuban pesos.  I exchanged 4 CUC for one hundred pesos. Technically as a tourist you are not suppose to use them, so you have to exchange with locals, but I used it to purchase food from the mom and pop shops and smaller items cause folks will try to get over on you when their rates are listed in Cuban Peso and not CUCs when a glass of mango juice is only 50cents. Because we did a lot of driving between cities where the rates are almost always listed in CUP at the little food huts on the way, it came in very handy. This will make more sense once I discuss the food, which is notoriously polarizing. Basically, I stayed far away from tourist fast food and rest stops, so I need CUP to eat with the locals.

With the conversion rate L, and all the artwork I bought, I spent about $900 over 10 days in Cuba, I could have done it for under $700 if I didn’t go bazurk at the art market. Totally worth it though!

We’ve covered everything, take a breath. It does hurt that there’s a looming penalty over the American dollar, but it’s not the end of the world. Oh and just remember when you exchange money back, 1CUC get’s you around .94cents and you cannot exchange back the 1CUC coins. Don’t exchange all your money at once, however you decide to convert, do it in piece as needed. Besides the lines at the airport to exchange money back are ridiculously long, though you could find another tourist to exchange with. Shhh! It’s super easy to be done, they’ll more than likely find you.

Next up: all about why staying at hotels is not a good idea and how to scope up the best lodging in Cuba. 

Check here for the whole travel to Cuba series.