There is a lot of confusion about currency and money in Cuba.
Last update Sept 2018
A lot of people think, and a lot of websites claim that Tourists have to use CUC (Convertible Currency) and Cubans use MN Moneda Nacional). This is utter nonsense on a lot of levels!
Some misinformation about currency
First of all: You can use MN as a tourist, and I recommend you do so, just to show that you understand money! Cubans use CUC all the time. You can exchange your CUC for MN in all Cadecas.
Secondly: The Convertible Currency is only Convertible in Cuba. Take it home, and it is worthless. Like Monopoly money is only money within the game. So it is only convertible in name.
Thirdly: People often ask me ‘how to spend their money without supporting the regime. Impossible! When you arrive you exchange your hard currency to Game Money. The hard currency is already in the government bank. You only spend Game Money (does not matter if you call it CUC or MN). If you do not want to support the ‘regime’, you should go elsewhere.
Fourthly: There is no double currency in Cuba! (I’ll explain below). Cubans pay 25 MN with a CUC and 3 CUC with 75 MN or with 2 CUC and 25 MN. Both are used simultaneously and are mixed up.
Difference between CUC and CUP bills:
Before I explain that there is no double currency, here’s how to distinguish CUC from CUP.
CUC bills have buidings and statues on them, CUP bills faces. That’s easy to remember because you need a lot of people (faces) to make a building.
Cuba is poor, and thus Cuba should be cheap. Both are untrue.
You might think that Cuba must be cheap because you’ve heard that a doctor earns 40 CUC a month.
Well, it’s not… (And a physician does not live on 40 CUC). Cuba is expensive. Nobody can live in Havana on 40 CUC a month. If you don’t want to go hungry, you need about a hundred. And if you want to buy clothes and wear shoes you need a hundred more and if you want to keep your house in a reasonable state that’s another hundred…
I believe that a Cuban in Havana needs about 200-300 CUC a month to live a decent life…
Because jobs don’t pay those salaries everybody is making money on the side. Or even worse, the salary people get is the pocket money you make on the side.
The average salary of 20 dollars is just a myth (we explain that in our book). So if somebody charges you 10 for half a day’s work, he’s not getting half a month’s salary, he’s just getting a decent pay.
All tips are welcome but don’t give foreign coins. I’m a European and come home with at least 4 pounds of coins every year because the Cubans can not exchange them and sell them to me.
They say that Cuba has a double currency… Moneda Nacional and CUC. (both are called Pesos by the way).
That’s an artificial debate. The MN is pegged to the CUC and always has the same value 25/1 or (24/1 when you are buying). So if something costs 25 pesos, it costs 1 CUC. If something costs 100 Pesos, it costs 4 CUC and the other way around. (small print… not taking into considerations Cuban companies.)
Calculus for the ‘double currency.’
A simple trick to convert Pesos to CUC:
Take off two zeros and multiply by 4.
CUC to Pesos:
Add two zeros and divide by 4.
The idea of a double currency just makes things more complicated, but in reality, it’s just the same currency, expressed in different terms. You can pay something that costs 10 CUC with 250 MN or with 6 CUC and 100MN or 50 MN and 8 CUC. The conversion is always the same.
I think the debate is artificial because the US has a double currency too. Dollars and Dimes… There are always 10 Dimes to a Dollar so you can price stuff in Dollars and Dimes. If something costs 10 Dimes, you can pay a dollar!!! Really!!!
Back to the virtual double currency in Cuba: We recommend you use both because it shows the Cubans you understand the system. They are very surprised if a foreigner understands their money and it will bring down your budget and earn you respect.
We explain more about the so-called double currency system in our book… Even the Cubans believe there are two currencies!
We do have an entirely different view on Cuba than the main stream Travel guides and websites. We live here and did not understand it all after the two or three weeks most travel writers spend researching Cuba.
You can spend all the money you want in Cuba; it is not a cheap destination. It’s not Asia, and you definitely can’t live on 5 $ per day. We’ll explore a reasonable budget here.
First of all, you have to get there. We have no clue about from where you will be arriving or where you want to go so we’ll omit the flight. From Europe, you could take the boat in Rotterdam if you want to travel slowly (about three weeks, via Venezuela). It’s a very relaxed and slow, but you don’t have a jet lag upon arrival!
What should be in your budget?
We’ll explore each of those below.
We would not recommend hotels. They are expensive, not so good as you would hope and always should have a star or 2 less than they boast next to their names. (Fun to know, Hotel Parque central literary lost two stars recently… Nobody got hurt!)
Still, want to stay in a hotel? Budget between 25 for a dump up to 600 for the five stars in Havana.
Most travel websites and guides recommend staying in a Casa Particular, and I would mildly agree with them. It’s the Cuban version of a BnB and in general, offer a much higher price/quality ratio than the official hotels. You can find a Casa particular from 20CUC and up. 20 CUC is very hard to find and impossible in Havana Veilla, Viñales or Trinidad. Prices are usually per room and without breakfast. Here’s how to book a casa particular.
Most travel advice stops here. So let’s look deeper to bring a standard budget down a bit
The Campismos are all located off the beaten track. They are some sorts of holiday parks with little cabins. Most are in the middle of beautiful nature. I would recommend everybody to spend a night or two in a Campismo. Prices range from 2 to 8 CUC per night per cabin. You need a car, bike or creative transport to get there. Reservations are difficult, to say the least… Just show up and talk to the receptionist (if there is one). Every major town has a Campismo Popular office. The Campismos are hard to find and not easy to reach. You probably need a rental car to get there. But they are cheap, fun and this is the real Cuban adventure.
Hostels are a new formula in Cuba. Especially in Havana. Based on a Casa Particular permit, hostels put up to six beds in a room and rent them for 5 to 8 CUC per night. These are great budget places, especially for backpackers and single travellers.
Some Cubans are willing to rent you a room for a night or two for a tenner in an unlicensed house (all Casas particular need an official licence, are very much state controlled and pay rather hefty taxes). Risks are not so high as you might think. The police might kick you out at 3 o’clock in the morning, and then you have to find another house. Chances of this happening are very low. Cubans, however, take bigger risks. If the police kick you out, they will get a huge fine (in CUC) and risk losing their house altogether. It’s not possible for you as a foreigner to estimate how high the probability of this happening is, so leave that to the Cuban offering you a room. He is well aware of the risk he is taking and probably took his precautions or has his connections that minimise the potential problem. So if someone offers you an illegal house, bargain the price, and I have no objection you stay there.
All prices (except hotels and Campismo’s) are negotiable. Put some effort in negotiating, and you will save about 20%.
Summary sleeping budget:
It’s impossible to find a place to sleep below 8 CUC. The absolute minimum budget would be ten on average… You will be sleeping in Hostels and Campismos at least 2/3 of the time to get to this budget. Hostels being not very comfortable and lacking privacy and Campismo are not very practical or easy to reach. More of a realistic budget for sleeping would be 25-30 per night per room. If you want to spend a lot of time in Old Havana, Viñales or Trinidad your budget goes up with about 5 CUC/night since those places are more expensive.
How do you want to eat? On the low-end, you can survive on 4 CUC a day or even less if you are willing to eat Cuban Pizza every night. (Believe me, pizza sounds good, but you are not prepared to eat more than one a week.) Breakfast in your Casa typically costs 4-5 (pp) and negotiating will bring that down to 3-4. Breakfast in the cafeteria down the street (there is always one): Coffee, a cheese sandwich, and a fresh juice cost about 80 cents. To be paid in Moneda Nacional (Read this to get a clue about the double currency system). Lunch and dinner are the same stories.
In a cafeteria, you can get a full meal for about 2 CUC and a pizza for 10 – 20 MN.
Dinner in your Casa Particular should cost between 8 for pork and chicken up to 12 for lobster and crocodile (the last being illegal but tasty!). You can spend between 7 and 100 CUC per meal in the paladars and restaurants. Spending a lot of money on food in Cuba does not mean it’s good by definition. Some restaurants offer great price/quality ratios others minor ones. Home cooking sounds good, but you will not have a kitchen with the equipment nor the ingredients. Herbs, pepper, fresh pasta… Forget it if you don’t stay long term.
You can save a lot of money eating cheap. You could eat (rather well) for about 3-4 CUC per day. But that’s hard work. I recommend you use a budget of 15 and if you want to eat well every meal to about 30. Sometimes you will spend more, sometimes less. On average you can eat on 15 per day.
Your budget for transportation depends on how many kilometres you want to travel and how comfortable you want to do that. A rental car doubles your budget. (Read more about rental cars here).
Different forms of transportation
In the town, the bus costs 40 Centavos (MN), and if it’s not too crowded, you can perfectly take it. Avoid very crowded buses, as your pockets, will probably be picked. Between towns, you have to take the Viazul. Often these are full (they are not, and a solution to this problem is in our book). On the Viazul site, you can find prices and departure times. The Viazul is the only thing that sticks to a timetable in Cuba!
Taxis, both legal and illegal
Shared taxis should be slightly more expensive than a Viazul ticket. See ‘rental cars’ for more information about the illegal taxis. Legal taxis that put on the meter are costly and don’t add very much to comfort or speed. So why take them?
These are freight trucks that have been modified to carry passengers. They are getting better every year! Commercial buses cannot be used by a private enterprise, so private transport is done with a truck. The price (for you) should be around 1/3 of the Viazul price for the same trajectory. In Havana, they leave from the central train station. They don’t have timetables and stick to that principle very well.
Don’t. Period… Just don’t.
Same advice… Don’t
Summary Transport budget.
Make a rough estimate of the number of kilometres you are going to travel and divide that number by 18 if you’re taking buses 15 for illegal taxis (this is pp). Double that if you rent a car.
In town, you take fixed route taxis or buses they do not affect your budget.
Please prepare and take everything you need. There is nothing you can buy in Cuba that is better or cheaper than at home. Just don’t go shopping.
A beer costs 1 or 1,50 in a club. Cola (the Cuban version) 55 cents and a mojito between 1 and 7. I spent about 5 per day for drinks, but some people don’t get to noon with that. I’ll leave this to your personal needs or perception of them. Put 10 CUC in your budget if you are not a sponge and you will be all right. A bottle of rum always comes in handy and costs about 7 for a good rum.
For most places, you pay 10 to get in. Live music in Old Havana and the Malecon is free. So are open air concerts and street parties. Buy a bottle of rum and some cups, sit on the Malecon, share the rum and you will have a party!
Museums are between 4 and 8 CUC. Ballet and opera 25 (which is worth it… I’ve seen Rigoletto with about 80 singers on stage!) The cinema is 80 cents and looking at prime classic cars on Saturdays (at the Piraqua) is free.
You are a tourist, and the bad news is that you are not going to make real friends in a few days. Company has a price in Cuba. For a friend put 5 CUC per day per friend in your budget and for the more exotic company (male or female or both, whatever makes you tick) about 50 to 80 per day. I’m not going to elaborate on this as I believe consenting adults should do what they consent to do… But before you read this please.
You can survive for 40-50 CUC pp per day. With a bit of clue, you can bring that down to 30. Without any clue, you are going to spend 70-100 CUC per day. With ‘company’ and without a clue you will pay about 200 a day. Good luck!
Knowing how to handle the jineteros will cut your budget by at least 20%. Here’s how!
The currency in Cuba is called Peso. Both of them are called Peso. So if people say Peso, then they are talking about CUC or Moneda Nacional (MN). Up to you to figure it out.
The CUC is the Cuban ‘hard currency’, pegged roughly 1-1, to the US dollar. ‘Hard’ has a very relative meaning here since the CUC is only valid in Cuba itself like Monopoly money only serves on the board. Try buying a real house or a candy bar with it, and you will see. Most tourists think that the CUC is the only money they can use. Not true. The CUC is also called Dollar.
You can also use the Peso (MN)! This Peso is pegged to the CUC at 1-24/25. You buy 24 MN with one CUC, and 25 MN will buy you 1 CUC.
If your coffee costs one CUC, that would be 24 MN. Not knowing the difference and paying in the wrong currency ups the price 24 fold! Don’t worry it will not be the other way around since the Cubans know the difference very well…
They say that Cuba has a double currency… Moneda Nacional and CUC.
That’s an artificial debate. The MN is pegged to the CUC and always has the same value 25/1. So if something costs 25 pesos, it costs 1 CUC. If something costs 100 Pesos, it costs 4 CUC. A simple trick to convert Pesos to CUC: take off 2 zeros and multiply by 4. The idea of a double currency just makes things more complicated, but in reality, it’s just the same money, expressed in different terms.
I think the debate is artificial because the US has a double currency too. Dollars and dimes… There are always ten dimes to a dollar so you can price stuff in dollars and dimes. If something costs ten dimes, you can pay a dollar!!! Really!!!
We explain more about the so-called double currency system in our book… Even the Cubans believe there are two currencies!
Know the difference
Since both currencies are called the Peso, the Cuban government figured out a smart way to make the distinction. The Peso CUC is indicated with a dollar sign with one vertical bar, and the Peso MN is indicated with a dollar sign with two vertical bars. Smart!
The problem is that about half of the Cubans know this, about a quarter of the vertical bars is correctly put.
Money in Cuba: quite complicated
Thanks to this dual currency system the economy is opaque at least. To complicate matters, some state companies are allowed a different exchange rate varying from 1-24 via 1-12 to 1-1. But that’s just nice to know; it does not concern the foreign traveller.
To get money.
Let’s start with the basis. Where do you get CUC and MN? You cannot exchange CUC outside of Cuba.
CUC can be changed at any (almost any) bank, the CADECA (official exchange office) and if you are fortunate enough that your credit card works at the teller machines, they will spit out CUC for you. (Only for non-US bank related Visa Cards…)
Don’t buy them on the street! There is no loophole to get better rates on the street like there were in the former communist countries… Just don’t buy in the street.
The CUC thus acquired can be changed in any CADECA (except the airport and hotels) into MN. Change 20 CUC into MN, and you will be good for a week at least.
When to pay with CUC and when with MN?
As a rule of thumb: If it seems cheap it’s CUC, and if it seems rather expensive it’s MN.
– A Pineapple for 10 is… MN
– A taxi for 4 is… CUC,
– Coffee for 1 depends… You can have a coffee for 1 MN or 1 CUC…
– A pizza for 10 is… MN unless you are in a restaurant.
We have a whole list in our book on what you pay with MN and when to pay in CUC. The price of our book is not in MN nor CUC; it’s in Euro by the way☺. Seems expensive but it’s cheap! Knowledge is priceless in a country like Cuba where the “no clue tax” is very hefty! Get wise here!
In practice, the MN and CUC are coupled in a fixed rate. So a 10 MN bill is just a 40 cents CUC coin. To be able to ‘talk’ MN (which makes a great impact on how Cubans perceive you) a simple trick does it:
Conversion MN->CUC: Take off two zeros and multiply by 4 (hence 100 MN becomes 4 CUC).
Conversion CUC-> MN: add two zeros and divide by 4 (hence 200 MN becomes 8 CUC.
The end of the CUC?
In July 2015, July 2016 and May 2017 the government announced they were going to abolish the CUC… A lot of shops are accepting MN to pay for imported goods (including ‘local import’). The CUC still exists today… The explanation of ‘local import’ is in our book 🙂