Bicycles from the Caribbean: Commuters, Cruisers, Cargo Bikes and Racers

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Merry belated Christmas! For the holiday, our family (parents, grandmother, two brothers and their wives, one niece and my wife and two kids) took a cruise through the Western Caribbean, so I got out of the snow, rain and freezing temps so much of the East Coast is experiencing.

Our stops included Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico and a private island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). The photo above is from Belize City, and you gotta think that Bruce Cycling Club Bike Shop knew what they were doing when they selected this billboard location.

Other than the private island, there were bicycles everywhere at each stop, and most were modded, hacked (sometimes literally) and customized to fit the users’ needs. Few if any appeared to be purely for recreation or sport, but they were all pretty interesting. Check out the photos below and after the break…

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This is the only bike I saw in Roatan, but we didn’t have a lot of free time to explore outside of our scheduled shore excursion to Gumbalima Park. It’s characteristic of the bikes though…they have gears, but few have working or extant derailleurs, shifters or cables. It’s almost as if they just shorten the chain to the gear they want when things get too rusty to work right.

After having monkeys and parrots crawl all over us at Gumbalimba, a few of us walked Roatan’s streets. The local kids will walk up to you and just start telling you things, then shadow you. Here’s the deal: They want you to tip them, and they’ll tell you about the city and answer any questions you have. Yes, it can be a little unsettling, but Christopher (our young guide) led us to The Blind Tiger, a bar/restaurant on a ramshackle dock that served great local food. The garlic marinated shrimp and fried conch were fantastic, and the accompanying beans and rice and fried plantains were very good, too. Local beers were $2 (can’t remember the names of them!), but the food was a little pricey at about $15/plate. We were sitting about two feet above the water and could see our ship from the table.

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Saw this pedal that had washed up by one of the docks on the way back to the ship in Roatan. Next stop: Belize City.

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The sign above is taken from behind the shot at the top of this post. Aaahh, the contrast between this PSA and the billboard from the front.  It’s probably a good message, though. According to our guide, 60% of the population is 18 and under. Why? One reason is because school is only mandatory through age 13 ~ 15, after which many of the girls start having kids.

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It’s a Lefty. Maybe they just wanted to save weight, and stripping the paint wasn’t enough. How do I know they stripped the paint? Read on…

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Belize City was the most urban (not big city urban, just crowded city urban) and had the most bikes. This one caught my eye because of the angle of the seat (above).

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This was the only child seat I saw, but I did see a father riding with his young daughter in front of him on the top tube.

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This Rasta colored saddle was kept pristine by a thick clear plastic cover.

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There were a few kids riding BMX bikes. This kid rode up to the store, dropped it on the sidewalk and walked in. Most of these photos from Belize City were taken from a moving horse drawn tour cart, so framing and focus is what it is.

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The Mercurio work bike was a popular item, and it was never the same twice. (Same actual bike is shown above and below) It’s hard enough as a single speed, but a missing pedal is probably why this one was sidelined.

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This one had a light load but a big ass umbrella.

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This one had an entire produce section. In Belize, Bananas and Mangos are ten for 50¢ These figures are in Belizean Dollars, which has a fixed exchange rate of 2 Belizean Dollars ($BZ) to 1 U.S. dollar (USD). Our guide said the only fruits not grown in Belize are apples and grapes. Oddly, the locally caught Lobster was $20 per pound. Gas was over $9 per gallon. The roads around Belize City were pretty bad, which explains the abundance of SUVs and trucks despite the high prices. Unemployment is somewhere around 50%, but depends on if you define “unemployed” as “seeking work but unable to find it.” That figure is likely open to interpretation, especially given the age demographics.

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The rampant poverty and high unemployment rate help explain this store’s slogan.

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This was a different model of cargo bike, but had the largest cargo box. Note the absence of a traditional handlebar and gears. In fact, despite some enormous loads, most of the cargo bikes didn’t have any gears.

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Some bikes were built for speed. Note the low, flat bar/stem/bar ends with the jacked seat and one-speed set up with slick tires. Yes, there’s a triple chainring on the front, but no shifters and only a single cog on the rear. Rear brake-only keeps it as simple as can be.

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This guy rode past our buggy cart pretty quick, which was to be expected since it was the only road bike I saw that still appeared to have all its parts working and installed in the correct location.

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This is my favorite non-family photo from the trip. Single speed in the rear and what looks like an old, rusty double on the front, but no derailleurs or shifters to be found. What’s really funny about this is the old-skool dual brake lever mounted almost all the way to the bottom of the bend in the handlebar. Makes it easy to reach in the drops and with your hands on the outside-top of the bars. Pure genius. That, along with the super thin “racing” saddle, probably makes this one of the fastest bikes in town. (In reality, that’s probably just a plastic saddle shell that has had the padding and cover worn off. I couldn’t get close enough to tell for sure.)

Next stop: Costa Maya!

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This and the remaining photos are from Costa Maya and the neighboring fishing village of Majahual, in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico. Here’s a blue version of the silver “Lefty” cruiser, proof that it was painted at one time. In case you were wondering, it’s a “Beach Cruiser.”

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This one belonged to a shorter woman that came up to me as I was photographing it. It’s a Turbo, and all I can think of is the Sledgehammer from Napoleon Dynamite. The only thing it’s missing is pegs…and matched brakes.

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She has a nice little LED light on the handlebar and what looks like an air canister shock to suspend the seat, though it’s probably elastomers. The rear brake rotor was exceptionally rusty. Surprisingly, Turbo Bicycles had an officially licensed partnership to make Ferrari bicycles that were (at least partially) designed by Colnago. Their mini-website for the licensed bikes is for model year 2007-2008, but the entire brand’s site and product line is far more robust than this model suggests.

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Apparently, Mercurio’s 26″ Cargo Trike is a popular model in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. It’s sold only as a single-speed, and from what I can tell, the modifications are all done aftermarket, likely by the end user. This one was pedaling / peddling along the boardwalk in Majahual.

Unless you’re into paying $3.50 per beer and $6+ for weak, crappy pinã coladas, you don’t want to hang out in the artificial tourist village that is the Costa Maya cruise terminal. It was completely built from scratch to allow the cruise lines to land there, opening a gateway to several of the more recently discovered Mayan Ruins. Since we forewent any other shore excursions, we took a $3 bus ride to Majahual (also spelled Mahahual) and checked out the street that ran behind the boardwalk searching for cheap beer.

Our first stop led us to a bar called 100% Agave owned by Fernando. Actually, we stopped at his beer shack first, which was across the street from his bar / restaurant. I asked Fernando where to find the best local seafood (ie. fish tacos), and he said his restaurant was the best, but it was closed that day. “Where’s the second best?” I inquired, to which he pointed us to Nohochkay (“Big Fish”), owned by Jaime Strimpopulos.

Jaime’s restaurant is at the end of the boardwalk. He used to own several restaurants in another city, but sold them to open Nohochkay on the water. The floors are sand, the bathrooms clean, and the single (communal) sink has water pouring from a conch shell. And the food? Best damn fish taco’s I’ve ever had, along with shrimp tacos and off-the-menu conch that’s marinated in his secret sauce. He brought us two sauces, one hot one made from poblanos and another that was immensely flavorful and absolutely not for sale. But, he did give us a Ziploc baggie full that I’m happy to say made it back through customs. Last thing, the food was cheap. $1.50 to $2.00 per taco, and $2 beers.

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After muchos tacos, we walked back along the boardwalk to Fernando’s (above) where we were promised a lesson in Tequila…and free samples. Those two barrels are his private reserve, and he’s filling a couple of water bottles of the 100% Agave Tequila Blanco for us (they made it through customs, too. Yay!). It’s amazing the difference between real Tequila and the stuff you make mixed drinks from…there’s virtually no burn in your throat and the aroma is quite woodsy.

If you’re headed to Costa Maya anytime soon, skip the port’s t-shirt stores and the “all inclusive” deals they’ll offer when buying your bus ticket. Go straight to Majahual and swing by Jaime’s and Fernando’s places for great food, cheap drinks and genuine people…things that are often hard to come by in cruise ports.

Comments

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Trish - 12/28/09 - 4:27pm

You are totally correct! Get the heck out of that artificial port and head to the “real” town!
Fernando is the best, too. Glad you found him. If you have a chance, most definitely eat
at his restaurant. It’s the best….and the tequila is superb!

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Tywin - 12/29/09 - 6:18am

Looks like a good trip. Great article. :)

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