A tale of two pesos

One of the interesting challenges of international travel is acquiring local money. In some locations it is really easy, or even unnecessary. In the bahamas the bahamian dollar is tied to the US dollar and everyone accepts US or Bahamian currency. There is no separation in the cash drawers and change is likely to come in a combination of currencies with colorful bahamian dollars mixed in with US greenbacks. Usually an ATM will dispense local currency at the daily rate of exchange. However because we bank at US banks our ATM card will not work in Cuba.

In order to complete customs and immigration you need to arrive in the country with Cuban currency in hand, not an easy feat to accomplish. If you don’t have them already the harbormaster will help you by exchanging the money you need for a 20% fee. Once again our slow speed helped us out and Luki from Skebenga came over to say hello as we pulled in and handed us enough cash to get through the check in process. The harbormaster seemed a little surprised when we indicated that we had the currency necessary to complete our clearing in.

Welcome to Cuba, here the local currency is…the Peso. But hold on a second there are two types of pesos. The tourist currency or the “Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)” and the local currency the “Peso National”. The nominal exchange rates are

1 CUC = 1 USD
24 Peso Nat = 1 CUC

However in practice since Cubans can’t spend USD easily due to the embargo the best exchange rate we could find was at the hotel where
1 USD = 0.87 CUC

Our next step was to acquire the money we needed for our stay here. We didn’t quite know how much to change but had been told that costs were quite low. Since there isn’t a fee for the exchange at the hotel we decided to change $100 to start. We walked in, spoke to an english speaking woman at the front desk and walked out with 87 CUC’s. We had been told that for some purchases, namely pizza and ice cream, the local currency would be better to use. Matt and Jess took us to where they had exchanged money the day before. We handed the cashier 10 CUC’s and received a fistful of Peso Nationals. We now just had to figure out where to spend each type of currency. Some of the places would indicate what currency was expected. All of the tourist shops specified that their menu’s were in CUC’s. The street vendors were usually pretty easy as well, for example soft serve ice cream at 5.00 was clearly in Nationals. I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream at $0.20 USD. Others got a little more tricky, cold drinks in the store were usually 1.00, which was in CUC’s. However on the street the orange drinks with ice from the back of a street cart were 2.00, in Nationals ( $0.08USD). Produce was also in Nationals! So the most delicious mango’s imaginable as big as your head cost 2.00 to 5.00 (0.08-0.20 USD). This made for a wonderful market experience that you will hear about soon.