Changing money in Old Havana

Changing currency is one of the first activities of a foreign trip, so it shouldn’t surprise you that this was one the first tasks we embarked upon as a group.

However, currency and money are not as straightforward in Cuba as you might expect.

The first thing to note is that in Cuba there are two currencies. Pesos nacionales (CUP) represent the longstanding currency that is used to pay for transport (including the ‘almendrones‘ – vintage cars – that Cuba is so known for), some food, some state-run restaurants and services, the cinema, and the national newspapers. The notes feature revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara:


The second currency, pesos convertibles, is more recent, and was created to deliberately control the circulation of hard currency after the resurrection of international tourism in the early 1990s. Before then, Cubans were generally paid in, were able to pay for goods and services with pesos nacionales. However, during the extreme economic crisis experienced on the island after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the tourism industry was kicked back into action to generate much needed capital. Pesos convertibles (CUC) could be used to charge tourists for things and be siphoned off, protecting the lower costs of living for Cubans using CUP. At one stage in the 1990s, US dollars were even legal tender – a step that has since been described as an ‘ideological cartwheel’ by scholar Esther Whitfield (given Cuba’s fractious relationship with the US).

Since then, more and more goods and services have changed to be charged in CUC. Generally we only handled this currency. But that’s not to say that it didn’t cause plenty of confusion on the trip… Both currencies use the $ symbol, and both may be referred to as ‘pesos’ as well as many many other names. Even though there are 24 CUP to 1 CUC, it’s not always clear from the value which currency is being used: $10 CUC could be the cost of a tourist taxi, yet the same journey could cost $10 CUP -less than 5% of the value – in an almendron, even though the cars took similar.

The dual currency is something that still confuses people who have been coming to Cuba for years!