Money & costs
If you’re not in the habit of tipping, you’ll learn fast in Cuba. Wandering son septets, parking guards, ladies at bathroom entrances, restaurant wait staff, tour guides - they’re all working for hard-currency tips. Musicians who besiege tourists while they dine, converse or flirt will want a convertible peso, but only give what you feel the music is worth. Washroom attendants expect five or 10 cents, while parqueadores (parking attendants) should get CUC$0.25 for a short watch and CUC$1 for 12 hours. For a day tour, CUC$2 per person is appropriate for a tour guide. Taxi drivers will appreciate 10% of the meter fare, but if you’ve negotiated a ride without the meter, don’t tip as the whole fare is going straight into their wallets.
Tipping can quickly resuelvan las cosas (fix things up). If you want to stay beyond the hotel check-out time or enter a site after hours, for instance, small tips (CUC$1 to CUC$5) bend rules, open doors and send people looking the other way.
Habana is the proverbial engine room of the Cuban economy, and is by far its richest province. As a result, Cubans from all over the island regularly pour into the city in search of work, security and better living conditions. But to assume that Habana’s streets are paved with gold would be a gross miscalculation. On the contrary, the city’s relative riches are woefully paltry by Western standards, and foreigners flying in from Europe and North America are often struck by Habana’s cheap, scruffy houses and general air of decrepitude.
Nearly destroyed during the economic meltdown that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Cuban economy has defied all logic by its continued survival. Coaxed out of its coma with a three-pronged recovery plan in 1993 that included the legalization of the US dollar (retracted in 2004), the limited opening up of the private sector and the frenzied promotion of the tourist industry, net advances have been slow but steady, with many of the benefits yet to filter down to the average man on the street.
Throwing off its heavy reliance on old staples such as sugar and tobacco, Cuba’s economy has spun inexorably toward Latin America, with new trade agreements such as the 2004 Bolivian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) accords exchanging Cuban medical know-how for Venezuelan oil. Other modern economic mainstays include nickel mining (Cuba is the world’s third-largest producer) and pharmaceuticals.
To the surprise of many, Habana isn’t a particularly cheap destination, especially since the US dollar was abolished in 2004 (meaning that all tourists must buy convertible pesos, for which they are charged a 10% commission). While there is nothing to stop you wandering off to anywhere you please, the tourist industry has been specifically designed to herd visitors into posh hotels, where they are encouraged to fork out for overpriced souvenirs and bland organized tours. To stay outside of this vacuum, try traveling on public buses, renting a room in a casa particular with kitchen privileges and changing a small amount of money into Cuban pesos (moneda nacional).
If you stay in a casa, eat from street stalls and hang out with the locals, it is possible to get by in Habana on as little as CUC$40 to CUC$50 a day. Hobnob with the tourists in the Hotel Parque Central, however, and you won’t see much change from CUC$250 daily.
Cuba has a sometimes confusing double economy where convertibles and Cuban pesos circulate simultaneously. In theory, tourists are only supposed to use convertibles but, in practice, there is nothing to stop you walking into a cadeca (change booth) and changing your convertibles into moneda nacional. With approximately 29 pesos per convertible, there are a lot of saving possibilities if you are prepared to sacrifice a little (or a lot!) of quality. Alternatively you can just put aside a small amount of Cuban pesos for small daily items such as ice cream, pizzas and bus fares.
Two currencies circulate in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$) and Cuban pesos (also called moneda nacional, abbreviated to MN). Most things tourists buy are in convertibles (eg accommodations, rental cars, bus tickets, museum admission and internet access). At the time of writing, Cuban pesos were selling at 29 to one convertible, and while there are many things you can’t buy with moneda nacional, using them on certain occasions means you’ll see a bigger slice of authentic Cuba.
As far as money transactions go, cash is king and you should arrive in Cuba with enough to last for the duration of your trip. Changing currency will incur a 10% commission. The best currencies to carry are euros, Canadian dollars or pound sterling; the worst is US dollars and - despite the prices you might see posted up in bank windows - the commission you’ll get charged is a whopping 20% (the normal 10% commission plus an extra 10% penalty).
Cadecas (change booths) in every city and town sell Cuban pesos, and travelers are perfectly within their rights to buy them; you won’t need more than CUC$10 worth of pesos a week. There is almost always a cadeca at the local agropecuario (free-enterprise vegetable market). However, most peso shops, restaurants, and buses will also accept the equivalent convertible payment.
You can’t take more than CUC$200 out of Cuba. Travelers attempting to smuggle out more are liable to have the money confiscated by customs with no compensation.
Although there are numerous ATMs springing up around Habana, at the time of research, none of them were accepting foreign debit cards. Unless you want to risk losing your card, don’t attempt to use the machines.
The following is a list of useful banks and kiosks for changing money.
Banco de Crédito y Comercio (Línea No 705, Vedado)
Banco de Crédito y Comercio(Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Banco de Crédito y Comercio (Av Independencia No 101, Vedado)
Banco Financiero Internacional (cnr Oficios & Brasil, Habana Vieja)
Banco Financiero Internacional (cnr Av 5 & Calle 92, Playa)
Banco Metropolitano (cnr Av de Italia & San Martin, Centro Habana)
Banco Metropolitano (cnr Línea & Calle M, Vedado)
Cadeca (cnr Oficios & Lamparilla, Habana Vieja)
Cadeca (Calle 23 btwn Calles K & L, Vedado)
Cadeca (cnr Calles 19 & A, Vedado)
Cadeca (cnr Paseo Panamericano & 5D, Cojímar)
Cambio (Obispo No 257; Habana Vieja; 8am-10pm)
Money-changing kiosk (Hotel Habana Libre, cnr Calles L & 23, Vedado)
Money-changing kiosk (Hotel Nacional, cnr Calles O & 21, Vedado)
Money-changing kiosk (Hotel NH Parque Central, Neptuno btwn Paseo de Martí & Agramonte, Centro Habana)
Money-changing kiosk (Hotel Sevilla, Trocadero No 55 btwn Paseo de Martí & Agramonte, Centro Habana)
Credit cards are liable for an 11.25% commission and thus are normally demoted to the emergencies-only bracket. Some of the better hotels will accept credit cards, and you can draw money on them from most banks, but the commission’s always the same.
Traveler’s checks in currencies other than US dollars can be exchanged in some banks, but it’s a hassle and the commission runs between 4% and 6%.