Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

What we thought about exchanging money in Cuba and what actually happened seemed to be slightly different than what we had read about, studied, researched, and expected for our changing Canadian for Cuban Pesos. You never, ever end up where you started.

Here’s an analogy; it’s like buying and selling a car; every time you sell, you lose a little bit more, no matter the initial value. You sell your US dollars for Canadian, and lose a little, then you sell your Canadian for Cuban Pesos, and you lose a little more.

The house always takes a cut for making the exchange for you – you are never making even trades. Yes, USD and CUC are valued at a 1:1 ratio; but you can’t get there from here.

We Researched Endlessly

Right before we left for Cuba, we were in a flurry of indecision. Should we take US dollars? Or perhaps it was better to purchase euros? Maybe we should stick to everything we read, which said to take Canadian. There are about 13 types of currency accepted in Cuba, such as Swiss Francs and Euros.

We knew this trip was going to be a learning experience, and that there might be several aspects that we would learn how to conduct more efficiently, figure out the local way of doing things, and find better methods.

We did our very best, and researched exchange rates for days. I have read all currencies are charged a 3% fee, and I have read that Cadecas do not add a flat rate onto any currency but American dollars. Canadian dollars seemed to suffer the lowest loss in the exchange rates we monitored daily up to the moment we had to make a choice.

Definitely, we knew we could not wait till the last minute to exchange money. So, off we went to our respective banks to learn how exchanges are conducted. I can tell you this; you need about a week in advance to make your plan. Here’s my article on exactly all of the steps that go into exchanging money: Learning About Exchanging Money for a Dive Trip to Cuba // Minding My CUC’s and CUP’s. It definitely is not instantaneous!

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Arrival in Cuba

Upon arrival in Cuba, one of the first stops we made was to the Cadeca at the airport. We learned from our coordinator that the trades would be the same rate at the airport, the bank, and the local Cadeca.

Apparently, the main difference would be the length of the line involved. Cubans are very good at queuing up, and at the airport there was quite a busy line inside, and a long line outside.

Where We Exchanged

Our coordinator wanted us to get the best exchange rate, with the least amount of hassle, so we bypassed the Cadeca at the airport in favor of one in Havana. We passed by a couple with very long lines, and settled on one with shorter lines.

We already were a bit overwhelmed from landing in Havana. Then we drove past several incredibly impressive monuments, universities, and incredible buildings with stunning architectural detail.

What to Expect at the Cadeca

At the Cadeca, the ladies spoke nearly no English. I was so grateful for my high school Spanish classes!

The experience was very different from banking in the United States. It was like walking up to a drive-through teller. The tellers were behind glass, and there were two guards at the “bank.”

One guard was at the front, controlling the number of people entering the gate, and another one was toward the back keeping an eye on the rear of the facility, which was enclosed in chain-link fence of a normal four foot height.

The really funny thing was that it looked like we were at someone’s house in a residential neighborhood! The Cadecas are sandwiched in between what appeared to be private homes!

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Relinquishing My Canadians

We pulled out our Canadian dollars, which we had already suffered a small loss in purchasing. I figured that it could cost me about 0.666666% to 0.888888% to change my American dollars into Canadian dollars due to paying a $10 per $1,500 US fee at TD Bank. Not too bad so far. About one percent.

The Canadian dollars were absolutely stunning, with beautiful colors and see-through panels of clear plastic. I almost hated to relinquish them. One member of our group returned with a $50 Canadian – it had a small tear, and the cashier at the Cadeca would not accept it. Remember that when you accept the currency your bank orders for you, decline any damaged bills.

We planned ahead, and had a pretty good idea of what we were doing, and it all turned out OK. We got the best deal possible that week by taking Canadian. Other weeks, other currencies might have a better exchange rate.

How It Went Down

I started with about $2,265 USD, exchanged that at .79% for $2,865 CAN.

The $2,865 CAN exchanged at 1.36433 for $2,100 CUC.

Had I exchanged USD for CUC, I would have paid 12.475%-13% in fees.

Since I brought Canadian, my actual fees ended up being about 1% to TD Bank for conducting the exchange, and 7.20% to change CAN to CUC.

In all, about 8.20% instead of 13%. That saved me about 5%, or, $50 per $1,000 USD. That’s a lot of figuring for $50 USD. However, our casa particulares charged $35 CUC per night; so, it’s like getting a night free!

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba
My fast shot of the exchange rates posted at the Cadeca.

So Confusing!

It was scary, it was confusing, and we were surrounded by people who we did not know. We then realized that we were allowed to ask our guide to come and stand by us and make sure the exchange was fair.

My exchange lady pointed to the exchange rates posted and claimed that they were not valid for that day. My travel companion next to me said her exchange lady said they were valid for that day. The rates were printed on bits of register tape.

There’s probably only a few things more nerve-wracking than exchanging money which is quite foreign to you in a third country and in another language for a second unknown-to-you foreign currency!

How To Make It Easier On Yourself

To make the exchange at the Cadeca easier, here are a couple things to do. First, exchange in the largest bills you can, in easy-to-count amounts. For example, don’t show up with fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and hundreds in bills already unfamiliar to you. That’s just too much confusion.

Before we left, I had run the exchange rates back and forth several times on calculators, converting my US dollars to Canadian dollars, and then converting them to Cuban pesos. Like I said earlier – you never come out even. Double count what you hand them, double count what you receive.

Even at TD Bank, the teller stumbled a few times when she came across all the stacks of odd 20’s and 50’s. Keep it simple. Order 100’s or 50’s only.

Then, use only an easily-spread out and displayed number of 100’s. You could spread out five 100’s, and they can see it and can see that you can see it. Or, spread out four 50’s; anything that is easy to see in one fan spread out and easy for them to count. You could even hold the bills up to the window at chest level so people behind you do not see, but they see, you see, and it’s hard for them to say you gave them four 100’s when you held up five.

Cadecas Are Not Like US Banks

For Americans, you should know that Cadecas are not like our banks, and you probably are not a known repeat customer. It feels quite strange, because you are standing outside, with people around watching. You actually are quite safe there, so concentrate and keep your eyes on the money.

I know of two instances where people I know were shorted exactly 10%; what they handed to the cashiers was underreported on their receipts. It could have been due to exchanging large amounts in various bills that were difficult to count, or the language barrier. Only hand through the window what you can fan out and both count easily.

In the US, the bank is the one place you are more likely to not be swindled or duped; everywhere else; your car, house, stores, you might be a victim of petty crime. It appears the opposite in Cuba; you are safe from petty crime everywhere, but do openly count, and keep transactions simple.

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Reading the Receipt

Cadeca: Casa de Cambio – this is an exchange house.
Compra Menodas Varias x CUC = Purchase Currency Various in CUC.
Casa = House, Caja = Register (box).
Nombre = your name as it appears on your passport.
Identificacion: this will have your passport number.
Pais: your country – Estados Unidos for me.
Importe – amount – how much money you present to them.
Tipo cambio – change type – the exchange rate / fee.
Entrada = enter – how much you hand them, CAD for Canadian, USD for US Dollars, and so on – check this carefully that it matches what you gave them!
Salida = exit, CUC = exiting with CUC’s and a $ amount of them is listed.
Then a breakdown of the CUC bills you received – check it carefully.
Fecha = Date.
Hora = Hour.
Cajero = Cashier there will be a number and also a name of your cashier.

When exchanging CAN for CUC, we saw 1.36433, meaning CAN was trading at 1:1.36433 CUC. You can take your CUC amount, multiply it by this Tipo Cambio, and the result is the CAN dollar amount you handed the cashier.

When exchanging USD for CUC, you will see something like .97250 on Tipo Cambio – this is the 3% fee, and you will pay an additional 10% for exchanging USD for CUC.

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba
Our Cuban hosts counts, recounts, and tells us we have overpaid! Oy!

End Result

We determined that it was over and done; one of those stressful things about traveling. We were somewhere you cannot use your credit card and rely on your credit card company to negotiate the best rates, and it was just part of the experience.

Spending American Dollars

We learned throughout our travels to four different cities, that Cubans will gratefully except American dollars for gratuities. You just have to factor in that you were giving them 13% less than you think you are. For example, if you think you’re tipping someone $100, you were probably tipping them closer to $87. I have a feeling that they probably can negotiate better exchange rates that we can with their friends.

Also, they know Cubans who are traveling back-and-forth to the United States. So, they probably can exchange with those Cuban travelers for about half the exchange rate that we would suffer. Thus, in reality, if you tip someone $100 US, you probably actually have tipped them about $93.

We visited the initial Cadeca, and then another one in Cienfuegos. In Cienfuegos, the lady at the Cadeca most enthusiastically assured us that we would always find a much better rate for exchanging US dollars.

True, it seems that you “get more CUC” for USD, however, in reality, you are paying a higher exchange rate. Check the rates before you go!

US Credit Cards Not Accepted

We did not attempt to use our credit cards anywhere. I have read that there are some Canadian – issued credit cards that will work in Cuba.

Most likely they only work in the very hotels and restaurants to which we are not allowed to travel, the ones on the no-go list.

Traveler checks also may or may not accepted in Cuba, so don’t plan on that. Apparently some European and Canadian credit cards and travelers checks may be usable in Cuba.

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Avoiding Spending in Prohibited Places

We were very careful not to spend any money in the prohibited locations, so it’s a moot point.

A longtime friend of mine who has traveled the world has a favorite expression, “take half the clothes, and twice the money. That sounds like a good plan in Cuba.

Exchanging As You Go

If you were willing to make stops along the way, you can always exchange money as you go. We opted to get the bulk of it finished so we could settle down to enjoy the trip instead of waiting in more lines at Cadecas.

Most of our group, at one point or another, was asked to exchange Cuban money for pesos. We had read so much about that being legal for us to do, but getting them in trouble, so we declined.

Except in one instance, one of my traveling partners was asked to exchange three dollars a CUP for five dollars American. She knew good and well that her $5 was worth $125 CUP. She was given $3 CUP, or, about 12 cents’ worth, knew it, and simply cherished the unusual bills.

We had heard about people in Cuba possibly attempting to give us CUP as changed instead of CUC. That definitely never happened. No one ever tried to fool us. Everyone we met was completely honest when it came to money.

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Spending CUC or CUP

It seems like it was quite acceptable for us to spend either CUC or CUP, but most of the places we went wanted CUC, which was what we had.

I explain how to tell the difference in Learning About Exchanging Money for a Dive Trip to Cuba // Minding My CUC’s and CUP’s.

You Can’t Take It With You

Upon exiting, if you have a large residual of CUC, you will need to exchange it for Canadian money, which you will pay pay again to exchange back to USD once home. It’s useless anywhere but Cuba, except as a souvenir.

We know our spending habits, and found it quite easy to budget ourselves for each day, and left enough money for final coffees and beers at the airport before flying out.

Any excess of money we had, we used along the way as gratuities in the casa particulares, and picked up a few extra souvenirs instead of exchanging it.

What to Read Next:

Planning a Legal Trip to Cuba from the US // Travel Restrictions // Rules for Americans

My Method for Booking a Great Airbnb Property

Can you take home Cuban currency?

, Cuban Pesos // What We Learned About Exchanging Money in Cuba

Mentioned or Shown in Article

I’m sharing with you some of the travel items we found most useful. Although your price does not change if you do happen to order any of the items mentioned; I might earn a small commission from your purchase, which allows me to continue bringing you great content. Thank you for reading!

Let’s Talk Spanish – this book has some truly useful and truly hilarious phrases!

Bill’s Mystery Ranch backpack – perfect size for packing in a carry-on, then unfolding once you reach your destination. Held our first aid kit, flashlight, and everything else.

My Passport Cover is only available if you cruise a lot on RCCL, however, you can find great ones online here if you want to keep your nationality a bit of a surprise whilst waiting in queues in airports.

Olympus TG-5 Waterproof camera – red – good to 50 feet, great for traveling in case of spills, then excellent for snorkeling. You’ll need the Underwater Housing for diving to depth of 150 feet.

Hydrapak Stash Water Bottle collapses to the size of a hockey puck!

Lifeproof NUUD Series Waterproof Case for iPhone – not the FRE! This case is nearly indestructible – I use it on the sailboat, cycling, on dive boats, and near glasses of ice water and cups of coffee.

The all-natural geranium and citronella mixture NoNatz is for gnats, no-see’ums, flies and mosquitos. In an upcoming article, you’re going to hear about our experiences at “Mosquito Headquarters #1 and #2!”

Resources:

Money Matters: How does the dual-currency system work in Cuba? 

Money and Currency in Cuba

Our wonderful hosts and organizers: Cuba Diving Now. Mention you heard about them from DeepWaterHappy, and they will save a kiss for me and a hug for you!

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