CRACKING THE CUBAN CURRENCY CODE
Last updated on January 17th, 2019
If you’re traveling to Cuba, you may have wondered how you can make your money go further by fully understanding the Cuban currency system?
By the time we arrived in Havana at the start of our month-long journey around this unique Caribbean island nation, we had done plenty of research.
One of the most intriguing things we had found out was that Cuba has two currencies.
Cuba – one country, two currencies
The most widely used by foreign visitors is the Cuban Convertible Peso. Its currency code is CUC, which earns it the nickname “kook”. When asking about prices you will often be told, “It’s 25 kook for the night, and 5 kook each for breakfast.”
The CUC is pegged to the US dollar at a 1-to-1 fixed exchange rate, but when changing other currencies to CUC there is an extra 3% conversion charge on top. Depending on your bank and the fees they charge, 100 kook will cost you US $103, plus fees.
US citizens should also be aware that the USD also attracts an extra 10% charge to exchange to CUC. This means that USD $100 will only get you about 87 CUC. If you are heading to Cuba with USD notes it may be worth changing them to another currency before arrival – perhaps Canadian Dollars, or Euros. You will lose less doing this than paying the hefty extra 10% fee.
Thanks to Peter from CubaUnbound.com for this reminder – see comments at the bottom of this article.
The other currency in regular use in Cuba is the Cuban National Peso, which has the currency code CUP. These pesos are sometimes referred to as “moneda nacional” – national money – or more often they are simply called pesos.
Kooks or pesos?
When quoted a price, if you are unsure of the Cuban currency being referred to, the question, “Kooks or pesos?” will receive 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.
Where to get your Cuban currency on arrival 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).
Thanks again to Peter from CubaUnbound.com, who suggests 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 MapsWithMe 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.
See the bottom of this article for links to our (free) Android and Apple magazine apps.
At the CADECA you will receive 24 pesos for one kook. If you are changing 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 (NOTE: 1 peso is worth about 4 US cents / 3 UK 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!
Tips for making the most of the Cuban currency system
- Find a CADECA as soon as possible, and exchange 10 CUC for 240 CUP
- Use separate pockets for the two currencies. I always had CUC in my left pocket, CUP in my right. Coins in the corresponding back pockets.
- Spend a little time learning how to recognize the different notes and coins. Although they appear quite similar at first you will quickly get to recognize them.
- Watch what locals in line in front of you pay, and simply offer the same in local pesos.
- If you have to pay in CUC, always check your change. A common “mistake” is to receive your change pesos instead of kook, at 1/25th of the value.
- Learn a little Spanish before you set off for Cuba. You probably won’t sound like a local, but at least you will be able to ask about prices, and be happily accepted as a customer at the local peso outlets.
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.
FINAL BONUS TIP
You may have noticed that the local 3 peso note features the iconic image of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
NOTE: You can learn more about Cuba’s fascinating revolutionary history in this post:
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.
How important is Spanish when using local pesos?
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, then you need to be able to communicate, at least at a basic level, 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.