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by Andy Jarosz
Walk along the streets of Old Havana, Cuba and you’re quite likely to stop to admire a very curious sight that will pass you by. You’ll probably hear it or even smell its fumes before you see it. You’ll wonder why it looks like a bicycle but sounds like a lawnmower. Welcome to the riquimbili: not quite what Che Guevara rode in The Motorcycle Diaries but a good example of Cuban inventiveness in finding a solution to a very real everyday headache.
Since the Castro revolution in 1959 Cubans have not been able to buy or sell motor cars in an open market. This explains the domination of 1950s American cars on the pot-holed streets around the island. When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, collapsed in 1991 the Cuban economy took a severe nose-dive. Rickety old buses would be the only means to get around town and between cities while Chinese-made bicycles would allow others to travel on their own steam.
Transportation in Cuba: Don’t Try This at Home
Desperate times often yield the most ingenious solutions and in Cuba the answer to the transport shortage was the invention of the riquimbili. Taking the frame of an old bicycle and connecting to a motor requires considerable mechanical prowess. Whether it is from a hedge trimmer, a lawnmower, a water pump or even a power booster from a Soviet tank, almost anything can be cobbled together to create a working engine for these contraptions. A simple water bottle is transformed into a fuel tank.
Speaking of fuel, the riquimbili delivers very impressive fuel economy with some managing as high as 120 miles to the gallon (50km/L). A little water bottle can go a long way…
They are not universally popular and their spluttering noise fills the city streets. They are technically illegal but the police mostly turn a blind eye to a mode of transport that is undoubtedly helping young Cubans to become more mobile at a time when work is getting harder to come by.
Of course boys will be boys and many riquimbilis have been made to race, with more powerful engines being attached and speeds of over 60mph (100km/h) possible. The accident rate in such races is alarming and it is here that the authorities are quicker to act.
If the idea of riquimbilis sounds appealing, it’s wise not to get any funny ideas. They are off limits to visitors,* who are able to hire standard modern rental cars. Given their bone-shaking and unstable nature that’s probably for the best. This is one sight in Cuba that is best admired from the safety of the sidewalk.