CubaPLUS Magazine

Carriages, carts and surreys

By: Inés María Martiatu, Photos José Tito Meriño
Carriages, carts and surreys

One of the things that most impressed visitors to San Cristóbal de La Habana was the quantity of carriages populating its narrow and muddy streets.

In his book Viajes por la Isla de Cuba (Travels through the Island of Cuba) Gal ician author Jacinto Salas wrote: "Visitors' attention is caught by the very curious richly burnished stirrups and other silver ornaments, as well as the wheels' strong wooden spokes, the fine cloth canopies to protect the travelers from the sun and rain, and the flexible whips.".

He was referring to the luxurious carriages of the very rich. Ladies and young ladies of this class did not go out on foot. First, because it was the custom to go accompanied by servants and surrey drivers, and second, by the lamentable state of the muddy streets without any type of pavement.

To go to the theatre or to church it was imperative to use a carriage, coach or surrey and, in addition, a favourite Havana custom was the afternoon carriage rides in coaches. When the sun sank on the horizon and a light breeze cooled the air, young girls in diaphanous dresses went out together in buggies that sat two or three. The most fashionable promenades were around the Square of Arms, Isabel II Street - later named El Prado - and the tree-lined Paula Avenue. Most of the vehicles, intended for the pleasantries of obtaining fresh air and showing the beauty of the ladies, were small open surreys, calashes, and buggies. The heavy closed carriages that rolled through Havana were for other purposes, like moving passengers or cargo.

These private vehicles were mainly kept by slave-owners, and with them came the servant-slave who was the carriage driver. These wore elegant uniforms flaunting the wealth of their owners, so much money was spent on their attire, such as fashionable Andalusian jackets, tall black hats, and shiny boots with pins and silver spurs. Of course, the driver always wore a gold hoop in his ear. As with the elegance of the servant-slave, so the horse had to be a l ively thoroughbred.

Drivers of rented vehicles were noticeable by their shabby clothing. They accepted all kinds of passengers, and had great knowledge of the city's streets and corners. Their horses were often skinny and lacerated, as the drivers would whip and curse them to make them move at greater speed through the pot-holed streets full of other carriages.

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