My best advice is to change your money when you arrive at the airport. I understand that some of you may be tired from long flights, but trust me. There are Cadeca (Casa de Cambio) at the airports when you arrive (see my chapter, Arriving at Jośe Martí International Airport).
Important note: Hotel rates may not be in your favour.
What Is The CADECA (Casa De Cambio)?
The cadeca is the Cuban government’s official money or currency exchange house, where you can exchange most currencies (using credit, debit cards and cash) into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and exchange CUC into CUP (the National Peso).
Look out for this sign displayed outside offices.
It is best to attend a cadeca early or late in the day, preferably Sunday afternoons and never on a Saturday or Monday morning. The process can take anything from 3 minutes to 2 hours - the timescales are unpredictable.
Depending on the office size of the cadeca, there will only be up to 5 people allowed inside at any one time. There will also be a queue – this is normal for Cuba. You may wish you’d gone earlier or decide to come back later - there is always mańana.
When arriving outside the cadeca it might not be obvious who is at the start or front of the said queue, or, more importantly, who is at the back. Now this is may be the one national obsession shared by the British and Cubans - the la cola or queue. I believe that queuing is a national pastime for the British. I witness them joining queues all over the world without necessarily knowing what’s at the end of it. It’s as if they are just programmed to do so. Cubans, on the other hand, know what’s at the end, normally it is ice cream or a bus, but in this case it is the cadeca or bank.
When approaching any queue in Cuba ask in a fairly loud voice “ultimo?” and somebody will either raise their hand, point at somebody or just look blankly at you. If you get the blank look you’re at the front and the other people are queuing for the bus. If not, remember the person’s face as this is a queue not a line, and take note of the person who appears behind you.
Now this is where the rest of the world can really admire and learn from Cuba. You can actually go off, have a coffee, sit across the road in the shade or do some shopping around the corner, as your position is reserved.
Remember that nine-year-olds, especially nina (girls) have the ability to project their voice or shout louder than most grown men from outside Cuba. I was pretty embarrassed when an eight-year-old girl assisted me in shouting to get the attention of a passing friend, and I know people who would quake in their shoes at the sound of this summons. Until living in Cuba I had never been easily intimidated - it did take some time to get used to.
If you’re changing foreign currency you will need your passport or Carne (Cuban ID), but I have not needed ID for changing Convertible Peso to National Peso.
Ensure you dress formally for entering a bank in Cuba; no vests or flips-flops. When inside, the security person (male or female), will direct you to a cash teller. Make sure it’s clear how much you want to exchange. If your Spanish is not great then write down the amount before you go.
Banks and cadecas will not accept damaged, spoilt or marked notes or bills. The teller will spend a long time examining each and every note, firstly the front of each note or bill, then the backs and the edges. They will also count the amount of notes or bills a few times (on average around 4 or 5 times).
Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the teller may ask which denominations are preferred. Try not to accept large bills or notes, such as $50 and $100 ones. The highest denomination you want is $20.
For most travellers there are minimal differences between a cadeca and a bank. Banks offer more services, such as stamps for extending your visa. The process for queuing is different in banks. When arriving at the entrance the security person will ask what you require and then ask you to take a seat. Don't worry, they will look after you and indicate when it is your turn. Remember to smile as they are more likely to bump you up the queue.
If you are a Mastercard holder or your cards don't work in the ATM or cashpoint then, in my experience, you’ll have more success in banks than in the cadecas. Any unused money can be exchanged back at the airports or donated to myself!
You will find locations within the Book!