As tourism continues to increase in Cuba, the country's state run banks are attempting to offer more outlets where Cuban currency can be exchanged for foreign dollars. Although some tourist destinations, mainly the Cuba beach resorts, will accept Euros, the American dollar is just now becoming accepted currency. It works better when you exchange your dollars for Cuban convertible pesos. The national Cuban currency, Cuban convertible pesos are also known as CUCs, and though the dollar is shunned, the CUC certainly attaches itself to it in the international market. Those looking to do a lot of excellent shopping in Cuba will be wholly disappointed, as unlike other Latin American destinations like Peru and Guatemala, native markets are not particularly alluring. That is not to say you won't come across some local markets with interesting handcrafts, but all in all, your choices for souvenirs will be more limited to Che Guevara items, or perhaps some trinkets or t-shirts.
Cuban workers are paid mostly in Cuban pesos, which are linked to the CUCs in many regards. Though you will end up changing most of your money into CUCs, you might also consider getting some Cuban pesos as well. This can help out when hailing a cab, or heading to a movie theater, for example, while at tourist destinations, the CUC is more standard. A bit confusing, but easy to figure out within no time. You can exchange your money for Cuban currency at a Cuban bank, and most hotels offer money-exchange services. State-run money exchanges, known as CADECAs are generally cheaper than the banks and airports are. You will also have to pay a more significant surcharge if you are changing dollars, so U.S. travelers might consider bringing Euros instead.
You can always pull out your Mastercard or Visa at a good amount of Cuban attractions, restaurants and such, and though ATM's are available, they can be hard to find outside of the major cities, and Americans will again likely have issues, if they can even use them at all. American Express cards will be of little, to no use to you, and you will likely find issue when using a U.S.-issued card. Count on using CUC's or Cuban Pesos (CUP) at smaller businesses and when traveling off the heavily beaten path.
If you are looking to go shopping in Cuba, the best Cuban stores are found in Havana, though by no means is the city a world-class shopping destination. Cubans aren't the richest people, so luxurious shops do not abound here, and if you are purchasing luxuries of any kind, they will definitely be at Cuban stores that cater to foreigners. Many visitors to Havana stay in or near Old Havana, and as such, this where you find the more upscale shopping choices.
Those searching the Cuban market for interesting finds will almost always at some point look to buy cigars. In Havana, the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás is an example of kind of Cuban cigar factory where you can find the real thing. Purchase Cuban cigars in the street, and you might be getting a very sub-par smoke. Cohiba is a major Cuban cigar brand, and it is the favorite of Fidel Castro, should you meet him and want to make a good first impression. Revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, is known to have puffed on Montecristos brand cigars, while JFK like to savor an Upmans cigar. Of course, after the Bay of Pigs invasion and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crises, Kennedy would have likely been glad that he stocked up ahead of time.
Careful bringing too many of those cigars into the United States, however. As of now, Americans can only bring back $100 worth of the Cuban icons. Cuban rum is also something you might pick up while shopping in Cuba. Bacardi is surely a notable choice, as is Havana Club, while those who are in the know tend to prefer a 7-year Varadero brand offering.
It's getting easier these days to find a mall in Cuba, but by no means are they prolific. The future should see more shopping centers built, as tourism brings in more visitors and awards natives with more of a disposable income. Many Cuban shops that are of interest to tourists can be found at Cuban resorts. You can buy a camera, some jewelry and cigars at these kinds of shops, among other items, and they can prove to be very convenient. Music buffs will certainly want to search for Cuban music when shopping in Cuba, and there are various craft shops in Cuban cities offering wood carvings and other crafts. How about a handcrafted Cuban guitar, or any other kind of instrument you can find being sold at one of the Cuban shops?
Finding a Cuban market where you can shop is not impossible, and most cities of any significant size will usually have a daily market where souvenirs can be purchased. Art is something you might consider looking into when shopping in Cuba. You might even get the chance to meet the artist, which is a great addition. Many a Cuban market, like the local market in Santiago de Cuba, features fresh fruits that are fun to examine, let alone eat. African-style drums, curious masks, and affordable jewelry are just some of the goods you can come away with if you find a decent Cuban street market. Calle Tacón is a good place to start in Havana if you want to experience a Cuban market.