Havana; A fascinating city with rich culture and history, boasting literary legends, beautiful architecture and a dreamy tropical climate.
Yet, while Havana has many interesting and amazing things to offer, it’s not particularly known for great shopping. Due to the political structure of the country and the state of Cuba’s economy, the majority of local vendors and shops selling goods, outside of staple items, are often targeted toward tourists. This being said, many of us still often enjoy taking home some sort of souvenir or gift from our travels as a memory of our time away.
My goal for this post is not just to discuss popular souvenir/gift ideas to take home from Cuba, but to also disclose some useful information related to shopping in Havana that I really wish I understood before arriving!
So, let’s get to it:
A brief rundown of Cuba’s currency/ies…
First things first, let’s talk money. Cuba has to be the most unique place I’ve travelled to in terms of how currency works. While Cuba does use the “peso” (AKA the Cuban Peso Nacional – CUP), it must be noted that there is a difference between the local peso, and the tourist peso (AKA the Cuban Convertible Peso – CUC). As a traveler to Cuba, you may be able to use the CUP for things like street food and local neighbourhood restaurants, etc., but typically will only be able to use the tourist peso. This currency can only be obtained within the country and, therefore, your best bet is to bring cash with you (American preferably, but many hotels, resorts, or currency exchanges will also accept Canadian) and have it converted once you arrive. It should also be addressed that, when browsing shops and souvenirs, you’ll likely notice that things have two different prices: one for local pesos and another for tourist pesos (this will be the more expensive price).
Several things to note:
- The best places to exchange your money will be at airports, major banks, or hotels/resorts;
- US Dollars have an additional 10% tax upon exchange and a 3% exchange fee;
- You should always check your bills after exchanging to ensure you have received the same amount of money as indicated on the receipt;
- If you have leftover tourist pesos at the end of your trip, you cannot exchange it back to US dollars.
Cash or credit?
Let’s take this money chat one step further… wouldn’t it just be easier to use credit or debit cards, so you don’t need to exchange your US dollars in country, or worry about wasting leftover cash? The thing about this, is VISA and other credit cards are very unreliable in Cuba, particularly if they are tied to an American bank. Some credit cards may work in hotels/resorts; however, you need to be prepared for any transactions made in markets, vendors, etc. to be in cash. ATMs will also not be kind to American debit cards and will be quite unreliable when it comes to obtaining cash.
Note: Government shops (ex. Major cigar shops) will accept USD and CAD cash, so not all purchases made in cash must be with tourist pesos.
What to take home from Cuba
Now that the tough part is over with, we can talk about some of the more fun stuff – what to actually buy in Cuba!
Cigars — Cigars are Cuba’s most famous and prized products, known for being the highest quality cigars in the world. Now, while you’ll find many different types of cigars available throughout flea markets and local vendors, it is best to purchase this souvenir in a government shop. Government shops are regulated, offering the highest quality of cigars, in a wide range of sizes and pricing. Comparatively, “black market” cigars cannot guarantee quality or value, especially when it comes to individual pricing between vendors. Don’t worry, the government shops will allow you to purchase individual and/or packs of cigars.
This being said, while government shops are your best bet for the purchasing of actual cigars, it is not in your best interest to purchase your humidors here! Humidors are excellent for keeping cigars fresh, at their appropriate level of humidity, and can make for fun souvenirs, even if you do not smoke. However, they are often extremely overpriced in government shops, and instead are better found in the city’s shops and markets.
Pro tip: Not sure which brand of cigar to purchase? “Cohiba” cigars are Havana’s premier brand for diplomatic purposes, and were also the preferred brand of Fidel Castro himself.
Rum — After cigars, rum has to be one of Cuba’s most famous products. There are several types of rum found in the country, including Ron Varadero, Ron Santiago, Matusalém, Ron Caney, and Ron Mulata, but the most commonly sold band is “Havana Club”. Havana Club can be purchased in white and dark varieties, and is available in different ages and vintages. The best place to pick up your Cuban rum is probably the duty-free shop on your way out, helping you to avoid packing and carrying heavy bottles during your travels.
Handicrafts — Though Cuba does not have a particularly extensive artisan craft market, the more common items you will find are woodcarvings, religious figures, jewelry made from seeds and shells, small percussion instruments, paintings and other forms of artwork, as well as apparel and bags. Though many of these items could be seen as “touristy” or even “tacky”, it is possible to find some unique pieces, that are not so ‘in your face, I went to Cuba’.
Music — Lastly, if the performances at your resort, or the sounds through the streets of the city, got you movin’ and groovin’, it might not be a bad idea to pick up a local CD or two. Of course, given this day and age, you can always download some wicked salsa tunes from Spotify or any other streaming service… but, it can be nice to support local artists, if you found yourself specifically enjoying the vibes of someone you encountered. For me, I know my hips seldom stopped swinging to the rhythm of the streets! Just be careful where you pick these up as you can risk purchasing counterfeit copies or discs of low quality.
Note: When it comes to the monetary value of such items among local vendors, it is important to note that prices will often be significantly inflated for tourists. Bargaining with shop vendors is possible, but the process will not be consistent.
Among my favourite items that I picked up in Havana, is a wooden humidor with the Cuban flag, and a small leather bag with beautiful detailing on the top flap. I purchased these items from a small shop in the streets of Old Havana, and combined they cost me about 12 CUC (approximately $15.87 CAD). I didn’t feel any need to barter for these prices.
To avoid wasting money (through converting too much to CUC), or running into trouble (not having enough cash, or working credit cards), when it comes to shopping in Havana — or Cuba in general — it is best to think about the type of shopping you plan to do, creating a detailed budget before your travels. Always be careful with your cash, and only trust designated points of contact when it comes to exchanges and the use of credit cards. The structure here may be a tad complicated, but it’s worth the time and effort.
And that concludes my tips for shopping in Havana! I do hope that this post provided some useful information for you, as you plan your exciting trip ahead, or at least gave you some inspiration or idea of what to expect when visiting this beautiful city, or Cuba in general.
Until next time, keep lusting for borders beyond your own and finding endless possibilities in this big, beautiful world of ours.