Simon Calder's Holiday Helpdesk: Coping with two currencies in Cuba

 

Q. My daughter is off to Cuba. Her worry is money. If the Cubans don't accept dollars, should she take pounds? And what is the best way of getting cash?

Name withheld

A Your daughter will become one of the relatively small number of British travellers to experience the beautiful chaos of the last bastion of communism in the West.

Cuba is a fabulous island, but with some annoying habits to contend with – such as its mad financial system. Jose Public uses the ordinary Cuban peso, for which the current rate is around 40 to £1. They used to be available mainly on the black market, but now they are exchanged legally at “Cadeca” kiosks – dotted around Havana and other Cuban cities. Travellers should always have a modest supply, say about £10 or £20 worth, in order to access items from pizza to city buses at locals’ prices. But for most essentials – accommodation, long-distance transport, meals in decent cafes and restaurants – foreigners need the CUC. This is the “convertible peso”, the island’s home-made hard currency.

The CUC is a peculiarly Cuban device. While the US dollar is the international currency of choice just about everywhere in the Caribbean, for political reasons Cuba has created its own (which, right now, is worth almost exactly the same as the dollar, at about 1.50 to the £). You can’t buy them abroad, so your daughter will need to change some upon arrival.

The best rates (ie where the “spread” between buying and selling rates is narrowest) are offered in exchange for the euro. It is probably not worth changing sterling into euros first, because you will lose a little on that transaction too. But a few low-denomination euro notes are useful, particularly in the back of beyond where locals will look askance at the Great British Fiver.

Besides cash, it is worth loading a pre-paid currency card with some sterling or euros so that she can use ATMs – and you have the parental privilege of topping up the balance from afar when it starts to run short.
Finally, while Cuba is the safest place in the Caribbean, ask your daughter to take extra care of her possessions in Old Havana and the centre of Santiago.

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