Cuba operates a dual currency system. Tourists in Cuba will generally be using Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs (pronounced “cooks”), which are equal in value to the US dollar. Casas particulares, Viazul buses, paladar restaurants, private taxis and other services aimed at foreign visitors will be priced in CUCs. When you exchange foreign money in Cuba, you will be given CUCs.
The second currency is the Cuban peso – CUP. These are used by Cubans, and one CUC is roughly equal to 24 CUPs. You can only obtain CUPs by exchanging CUCs, not foreign currency.
Most tourists will have no need to obtain CUPs. However, if you feel like going a bit more local, CUPs will come in handy. You can buy street food, or fruit from street vendors. You can buy a drink at venues more commonly frequented by Cubans, such as the smaller cultural centres. You can also ride in a local taxi, which is shared with other passengers. Given the exchange rate, anything you pay for with CUPs will also seem ridiculously cheap – although the main reason for using them would be to have more of an immersive Cuban experience, rather than to save money on a mojito. Basic Spanish is advised if you want to go for this option. For tips, stick to CUCs – these are far more valuable to Cubans.
The other reason that some tourists are keen to get their hands on CUPs is that the 3 CUP note features Che Guevara – making for an unusual souvenir.
ATMs are widely available in cities, but cards issued by US banks (ie. American Express and Mastercard) are not currently accepted; Visa is the safest option. Bring cash to exchange and check with your vacation company on the best Cadecas to use, checking the current rates as you go. Although the CUC is pegged to the US dollar, there is a 10 percent surcharge on exchanging them, so Sterling, Canadian dollars or Euros are advised. Always check with your vacation company prior to travel, as the political situation is shifting, and things may change in the near future.