A Gringa’s Search for Pesos in Cuba

The only currency you can buy anything with in Cuba is the currency of the only country on earth who won’t let people spend it there.

Cuban pesos have the delusion that they are a currency. The Cuban government feeds the fantasy by paying its workers in it. In reality, what little there is to buy in Cuba can only be had with good ‘ole greenbacks. So much trade is conducted in dollars that there aren’t enough physical dollars to go around. The Cuban government has resorted to printing pesos convertibles that are equivalent to 1 US dollar. So you have Cuban pesos, officially worth about 21 to $1, convertible pesos worth $1 each, and real live dollars.

Trying to find pesos in Cuba was like trying to find Canadian dollars in San Franciso - it was possible, but why? Going from store to store in search of pesos always brought a similar reaction as would a US search for Canadian money - clerks would open the cash register and look in all the little dividers with that same expression: "I thought I had one in here somewhere that somebody stuck me with onetime…"

I finally was able to avoid the inevitable helpful explanations from everyone of how I really don’t want pesos by prefacing my request with "para mi collecion." They understood the concept of Cuban pesos as a collector’s novelty, but not the concept of Cuban pesos as legal tender.

Then they didn’t really believe I wanted that much. I handed a $5 bill to a money exchange clerk at the airport and she gave it back saying that I didn’t want that many pesos. I was finally able to get $3 worth out of her.

Then the clerk at the banco at the airport couldn’t understand why I wanted convertible pesos when I was leaving the country. In her mind I was supposed to be selling them, not buying them. After a torturous explanation in Spanish, (torturously for her, I must have said collecion 20 times) I finally managed to get $5 worth.

In brief, here is the rundown of my adventures in search of Cuban pesos in Cuba:

1. Stood in line for 30 minutes at the Codeca currency exchange booth in Coppelia Park - $5 in Cuban pesos. While waiting I made my sole illegal purchase of the famous Coppelia ice cream (felonious dairy trafficking?). I gave the clerk a dollar, got back a nickel change. Could have been in LA.

2. Photo store in Habana Libre Hotel - 3 pesos convertible crumpled in the back of the cash register.

3. Bar in Habana Libre Hotel - exchanged $1 for about 50 Cuban centavo coins, total value 5 cents US.

4. Cigar store in Verdado - nada

5. Souvenir store in Verdado - exchanged $1 for some 3-peso Che Guevara coins worth about 70 cents. They were all the pesos they had in the whole store.

6. Airport cambio - $3 in Cuban pesos.

7. Airport banco - $5 in convertible pesos.

Overall, I think it would have been easier to find Canadian dollars.

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