Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Forts of Old San Juan


A Garrita at El Morro

In 1508, Ponce de Leon sailed into a large bay, on the north shore of the island he would name Caparra, in honor of the birth city of Spain’s governor of Caribbean territories. The initial Spanish settlement was at the eastern end of this bay. In 1511, a new settlement was built at the entrance to the bay. This town was eventually named Ciudad de Puerto Rico de San Juan Bautista. Over the years, this name was split in two, with Puerto Rico becoming the name of the island, and San Juan the name of the city.


San Juan became a very important city in Spain’s empire. Its bay is a fully protected, deep water port. Its position near the eastern end of the Caribbean Sea offered a keystone position in defending the area from invaders. This meant the it was coveted by other European powers who wanted to control the American Colonies. In order to protect this important city and bay, San Juan was built as a walled city, with forts built at key locations. Today, two of those forts remain, along with about 60% of the city’s walls.


Castillo Felipe del Morro


Most people who have visited Puerto Rico are familiar with Castillo San Felipe del Morro, called simply El Morro (The Promontory). This fort sits at the northwest corner of the city, overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay. Its construction went form the late 1500’s through 1787. It rises 140 feet (42.7 m) above the Atlantic Ocean, and its walls are 18-25 feet thick. Along with El Cuñuelo, a fort on the other side of the bay’s mouth, it provided a crossfire that was effective at stopping invading naval forces. In fact, San Juan survived attempted raids by French privateers, the Dutch Navy, and two attempts by the British Navy to take the island.

El Morro Lighthouse

Entrance to El Morro

Looking across to El Cuñuelo

Supplies coming to the island from the U.S.


The fort was home to several artillery batteries, with rooms set up to store gun powder, ammunition and other supplies. Most of the soldiers lived outside the fort, at the nearby Cuartel de Ballajá. Also outside the fort is a large lawn. Today it is a place where classes and families come to picnic and fly kites. In the past is has served as a parade ground, and when the fort was controlled by the U.S. military, as a golf course and had a swimming pool.


Today, the fort has several exhibitions that explain the history of the fort, the role of Puerto Rico in colonial times, and life at the fort. When you enter you are on the 5th level of the fort, in the main plaza. You can walk up to the 6th level for excellent views of the bay, or down a steep stairway to levels 1, 2 and 3. 

Main Plaza




Castillo San Cristóbal


There is a second fort in Old San Juan that is not visited by as many people, but I find much more interesting. Castillo San Cristóbal was built in the northeast corner of Old San Juan. Finished in 1783, it offered protection to the Atlantic coast and to the main road into the city. San Cristóbal towers 150 feet above the ocean, and it looks down over the city and San Juan Bay. This fort served as home to its soldiers, and there is a building that is set up as the barracks used to be arranged. Other rooms offer the fort’s history, and there was an exhibit showing architectural drawing of all the fortifications of San Juan, along with photographs taken over the past 100+ years. In addition to its troops, the fort also held a cistern that could store enough water to supply the fort for a year. 

San Juan Bay


Access to the cistern

In the Barracks

In the Barracks

An historic recreator getting ready



Currently, the only entrance that is open is near the upper level of the fort. When you use it you enter the main plaza of the fort, which served as the parade grounds for the soldiers. You can walk to the top of the barracks, which is the highest point in San Cristóbal. Here you will find some great views of the city, and a World War II bunker built by the U.S. military. 

Entrance Plaza

Ramp to the entrance

Old San Juan

WW II battery

Looking to El Morro


You can also walk to the lower level of fort. Here you will find a visitors center with some historic displays, and a souvenir shop. Usually, this area serves as another entrance to the fort, but the entrance is currently closed due to staff shortages.

Tunnel to the lower level

Both forts are U.S. National Park Historic Sites. The fee is $10 for a one-day ticket that will provide entrance to both El Morro and San Cristóbal. If you have a yearly NPS pass, it will get you in for free.

1 comment:

  1. Many of us have visited San Juan's forts during vacation. We may have taken pictures on the lawn or around the wall. But how many of us have gone into the bowels of the fortifications, looked into the history of them and checked out the functions of the inner structures?