One of the most unique things about Cuba and something I’ve never experienced in my many other years of travel, is a country with two of their own currencies. Sure, there’s the occasional country where they have their own, but US dollars are a second currency, especially used for larger transactions and tourism.
Cuba uniquely has 2 – the Cuban Peso (CUP or “moneda nacional”) and the Cuban Covertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is officially pegged 1 to 1 to the US Dollar. However, if you want to trade a US Dollar for a CUC, you only get back $0.86. This is because all currencies have about a 4% conversion fee (remember the Cuban government controls nearly everything in the country so a nice profit for there). The US Dollar only has an additional 10% penalty due to the embargo. The CUP is worth 1/25th of a CUC, so 4 cents apiece.
Generally you will need to go to an official exchange bank, often stand in line for quite awhile, and trade to CUC. If you can, get a few dollars worth of CUP as these are useful if you want to buy snacks from a Cuban food kiosk. A local might also be willing to trade some. I gave some CUC to a fruit stand seller and he gave me 24 CUP to a CUC.
Most restaurants, bars, groceries, etc that a tourist would frequent, the prices are quoted in CUC. There are some places that are more abiguous. Occasionally you’ll see a price at a local joint that seems way to low to be in CUP but too high to be in CUC. For example, the Copelia Ice Cream Parlour in Cienfuegos (branches also in Trinidad and Havana), the price for a dish of 5 scoops and a fruit topping costs 3.5. So is that $3.50 or $0.14? Locals are lined up to buy sandwiches and pizzas. A pizza costs 10. So is that $10 or $0.40. I found that if you have to ask, and locals are around, the lower price applies. However, if you give the vendor CUC, you are asking to get overcharged by as much as 25x the price. Before I learned this trick, we had stopped in Coppelia in Trinidad and the price showed 0.75 per scoop (or “bola”). I made the mistake of paying in CUC and they gave me change as though the price was 0.75 CUC, later to find out it really should have costed 0.75 CUP, or 3 cents.
Another bizarre thing is the pricing at the nicer establishments. Some of the nicer restaurants have two prices – a menu for tourists and one for the locals. One night we went to a restaurant at the recommendation of our guest house owner and were given a menu with dinners costing $8-15. Like elsewhere in Cuba, they tended to only give each table a single menu so my friend went up to get a second menu. The waiter came running over to our table yelling “NOOOOOOO!” but my friend had already looked inside. All of the prices were $5-7 cheaper than the menu we had. He claimed it was an old menu but we realized that was the menu for the Cuban guests.
At first I was frustrated when we were constantly overcharged but at some point I just decided to go with it – if we got overcharged a few dollars a day, we weren’t going to sweat it. I know this only encourages this behavior but in general Cuban families need it more than we do.