Kooks or pesos?
When quoted a price, and you're unsure of the Cuban currency being referred to, just ask the question, “Kooks or pesos?” to elicit the appropriate answer.
CUCs (kooks), are sometimes referred to as tourist money, but they are widely used by locals too, particularly in cities. CUCs and CUPs can both be used in many shops, and there is a fixed exchange rate of 25-to-1. One kook is worth 25 national pesos.
We asked our host in Havana if we needed local pesos, and where we could get them.
She just laughed. “They won’t be any use to you.” She was right to some extent, as in Havana there are very few places that tourists would need pesos. Everything is priced in kook. Outside of Havana though, it's a different story.
Where to get your Cuban currency at Havana Airport
You can get your Cuban currency (CUCs) in the airport at Havana when you fly in. Head upstairs from the Arrivals area, where you will find 4 ATMs and a couple of currency exchange windows. When we arrived, there were lines of people for the windows, but if you have a cash or credit card it was easy and quick to withdraw local currency, ready to pay your taxi fare to the city centre.
How and where to get your local Cuban pesos
It turned out to be relatively easy to get our hands on the local Cuban currency or pesos. You have to find a “casa de cambio” – a money changer – which is referred to as a CADECA in Cuba (CAsa DE CAmbio).
All banks will change CUC to CUP. We only used the CADECAs, where I was never asked for my passport. You may need your passport at the bank.
We found them easily in all towns and cities by using the Maps.Me app on our phone. This is a wonderful offline map tool which doesn’t require any internet connection because you can download maps for offline use for any country in the world.
At the CADECA we received 24 pesos for one kook. If we change pesos back in the other direction, it costs 25 pesos to buy one kook, hence the official rate of 25-to-1.
When you change 10 or 20 kook you receive a huge bundle of notes, and suddenly feel very rich. And in a way you are very wealthy! Because having pesos in your pocket really is the key to unlocking the Cuban currency code.
Where can I use my local Cuban pesos?
As you get further from Havana, and further off the well-worn tourist trail, you will discover more and more opportunities to use pesos rather than kook.
As most regular Cuban workers are paid in pesos, many restaurants, food outlets, coffee shops and more price their wares in the local currency. We also used local trains a couple of times, paying the standard local rate. And prices are amazingly cheap!
Here are just a few examples we discovered - bear in mind 1 peso is worth about 4 US cents or 3 pence.:
- A freshly brewed cup of Cuban espresso - 1.20 pesos
- Cheese and ham toasted sandwich - 6 pesos
- Cheese and onion pizza - 10 pesos
- Three scoops of ice cream - 3 pesos
- Huge crispy peanut bars – home-made - 5 pesos
- Two-hour train journey - 1.20 pesos
If you don’t have local pesos in your pocket, many of the smaller vendors will simply ask the same price in kook. We saw this happen in the town of Vinales, where we discovered a big line of locals buying ice cream at an open window.
As we joined the queue I looked at what others were paying, and quickly figured out that each cone with its huge scoop of soft ice cream cost one peso. I had two coins ready to pay, and they were accepted without question. 4 cents each.
As we ate our tasty treats quickly in the hot sun we saw another tourist pay at the window. She was asked for two pesos, and paid with a 5 CUC note. She got 3 CUC change. Her ice creams had just cost twenty-five times more than ours!
As we planned to be in Cuba for a month, we knew that we would have to budget carefully. We found that by always having local pesos on hand made it possible to eat on many occasions at extremely affordable prices.
So if you are heading to Cuba any time soon, make sure you crack the Cuban currency code, and experience some of the more local flavours of the Cuban lifestyle.
Bonus tip - Che Guevara notes
You may have noticed that the local 3 peso note features the iconic image of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. At many of the touristy sites around the country you will find a wily local who will try to sell you one of these popular notes.
The price might start at three kook, but be discounted down to one kook if you haggle well.
Don't be fooled!
When you start using your national pesos you will receive these notes naturally in your change. There are plenty of them in circulation.
They are worth about 12 cents, so paying the equivalent of three dollars for one represents a very hefty mark-up.
Simply say, "Ya tengo," - I already have - and the vendor will move on to less knowledgeable prospects.
Do I need to speak Spanish in Cuba?
We SERIOUSLY suggest you learn the basics of Spanish before heading to Cuba.
If you want to get the most out of the dual Cuban currency system, travel independently, visit out of the way areas, and use public transport, then you need to be able to communicate, at least at a basic level. It will make life so much easier when you go to the local eateries, or try to buy a train ticket.
We took our first steps in Spanish with Marcus Santamaria's wonderful Synergy Spanish lessons. Learn simple, quick, and very practical Spanish right from the start!
Enjoy your time in Cuba and we hope your money goes much further. But honestly, for us it was more about the access to local eateries, cafes and transport that enabled us to talk and mix with the wonderful Cuban people.