In many countries it is a tourist’s rite of passage to pay more, but Cuba is the only country with a completely separate currency for tourists.
- The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) has been around for the last 8 years. Previously pegged to the US dollar, it now rests just above it.
- The second currency is the Cuban Peso (MN) which is worth 1/25 of the CUC, but you only ever get 1/24 (even the money exchange takes 1 peso in commission).
Everything tourist related is priced in CUCs such as items from most restaurants and bars. As well, many goods ranging from shoes and clothing, to big ticket items such appliances, cars, houses, etc. are also in CUCs. Yet, other consumer goods such as national soap, toothpaste, produce from markets, and food from cafeterias and certain restaurants are sold in MN.
On one hand the two currencies generate significant tourist revenue, but on the other hand, it means that many Cubans cannot afford goods and services in their own country. The second currency also encourages Cubans to tourism either officially or on the black market. This government now sells licenses for Cuban to rent a room in their house, but others might unofficially use their cars as private taxis, scalp tickets, etc.
Here is an example of exchange rate differences for MN and CUC which are most obvious in shows, food and in transportation.
Note: for ease of conversion, you can assume that CUCs are approximately on par with the CDN and US dollar.
- Transportation going from Habana Veija to the Plaza de La Revolucion:
A private taxi from Habana Veija to the Plaza de La Revolucion where I live costs between 4-6 CUC, a motorcycle taxi (or coco-taxi), might costs 2-3 CUC,
a taxi for cubans (maquina) that runs on select routes through the city costs 10 MN (i.e., less than 0.50 CUC), and a bus - costs 0.40 MN - (i.e. 0.05 CUC!)
- The ballet at the Gran Teatro would cost 25 CUC for foreigners and 25 MN for Cubans, but they might line up all day to get tickets - while there is no line for foreigners.
- Typical Cuban lunch (almuerzo) of rice and beans, boiled root vegetables, tomato salad, and chicken or pork costs: 4-10 CUC in a state-owned restaurant 5-15 CUC in a paladar (privately owned restaurant), and 24 MN (1 CUC) lunch from cafeterias/private houses
All this to say, that if you can pay for some expenses in Cuban Pesos (e.g., some food and transportation, you can save a lot. Just keep in mind that your higher prices help to subsidize the lower costs Cubans is completely valid.
Below are photos of my favourite 24 MN (1 CUC) lunch that is brought to me in a basket. This place is on San Martin on the north side of the Capitolio building. Also, the by far the cheapest MN food I've seen in Cuba (near the cemetery in Santiago)