Visit Cuba, and you’ll spend the entire time figuring out how to pay for anything. Even if you have the 3 peso Cuban bank note.
To experience Cuba to the fullest, you’ll want to explore, eat, drink, and partake of all the country has to offer. Easier said than done.
For starters, ATMs don’t dispense money from U.S. banks, and no one is going to run your credit card. Your first inclination might be to bring U.S. dollars. Don’t do this. If you bring U.S. dollars, you may as well dump your cash into the lap of the currency exchange teller and fly back home. The U.S. dollar to Cuban convertible peso (CUC) exchange rate = “Dude, U.S. dollars? For real?”
Also don’t bring Mexican pesos. Useless.
Fortunately, the currency exchange teller will exchange euros. She’ll also be bored and grumpy and have no incentive whatsoever to exchange your euros for CUC denominations you can actually use. Instead, the teller will exchange your euros for 100 and 50 CUC notes, which you’ll subsequently spend the entire trip trying to break with little success.
When a waitress grudgingly agreed to break one of our 50 CUC notes in lieu of making LuAnne and me wash dishes in the back room, we high-fived. Score! Not only would we be able to pay for our 9 CUC worth of drinks, but we would get 41 CUCs back. And 41 CUCs meant we would get our first elusive 1 CUC note! It also meant we would be able to do the decent thing and tip the musician who had been playing in the corner for the past hour.
Let me take a moment to explain why it’s a better idea to give wait staff and musicians a 1 CUC tip than a 5 or 10 CUC tip. Cubans make about 20 CUCs a month on average. Wait staff, musicians, and maids who earn tips make more than doctors. People begging on the street do too. It’s one reason why so many Cuban doctors defect.
Back to the story. The waitress returned with our change. She gave us a 20, a 10, a 5, and two 3’s.
“They have a 3 peso Cuban bank note,” LuAnne said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
We gave the musician a 3 peso note and called it a day.