Photo Essay: El Morro Fort, Old San Juan

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Lower level of El Morro looking towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Old San Juan, founded in 1521, is a city originally conceived as a military stronghold for this Spanish colony. Naturally, the whole islet of San Juan was bordered with a massive, yet intricate fortification system that protected this strategic location in the Caribbean Sea, as well as held the riches Spain needed to gain world power.  Out of the fortification system, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also known as El Morro, is the most important structure due to its size and location.

El Morro is one of the most well known attractions in Puerto Rico.  Its iconographic shape and character represents and pays tribute to 5 centuries of Spanish colonial and American history that speak about the strategic importance of the island to its mother nations.

Puerto Rico was the first large island with food, fresh water, supplies, and shelter encountered by weary sailors from Europe.  Its geographic position midway between Europe and the New World, its location on the course of the trade winds, and its deep, easily defended harbor here at San Juan gave Puerto Rico great military, economic, and strategic importance.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

View towards the entrance of San Juan Bay. El Morro and El Cañuelo (located on the small island to the left) cross fired enemy ships that attempted to enter to the bay.

Located on the headland overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was built to protect the city of San Juan from seaborne enemies. When seen from the sea, you get the sense of how this imposing fortress commanded the respect of those that attempted to defeat it.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

The great lawn before the entrance of El Morro helps set this structure as an iconic element in Old San Juan.

The large green field in front of the fort was strategically planned by the military and used as camping ground during for the troops during WWII.  Today it is an extremely popular spot for locals to picnic and fly kites. Including its green field, El Morro has the distinction of being the largest fortification in the Caribbean, with a total of 74 acres.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Entrance of El Morro with classical greek and roman design features to express power in size and imperialism.

When you enter, the first area you see is the Main Plaza.  This was the area where troops would assemble for parades and daily inspection. The rooms around the sides were used as living quarters, storerooms, chapel, powder magazine storage, prison cells, and canon-firing positions.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

The Main Plaza of El Morro

Here you can watch a short video about the history of the fort.  Park Rangers give a short orientation talk on the hour in English and 30 minutes past the hour in Spanish.  Otherwise, you can explore this magnificent fortification on your own by going down the staircase/ramp that takes you down to the lower level.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

The staircase loophole that connects the main plaza with the lower level.

At the lower level is the Bateria de Santa Barbara – the most powerful cannon battery of the fort. Here you will find the iconic Garitas (sentry boxes) along the walls, as well as the ‘Water Battery’. The ‘Water Battery’ got its name from the fact that the cannons were placed so close to sea level that they could easily hit the hulls of any ships that attempted to get too close to the fort.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Close look at a Garita (sentry box). These were strategically placed along the walls of the fort and walls surrounding Old San Juan.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Lower level cannon that served as protection to the bay and the fort.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Thresholds connecting various rooms in the lower level. The lower level also had additional living quarters for militants on duty.

Back in 1539, El Morro was just a simple tower.  The six-level layout seen today was designed several years later in 1587 by engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli based on the established Spanish military fortification design principles of that time period.  A second period of major construction followed in the 1760’s to 1790’s

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Rising 140 feet above the sea, its 18-foot-thick wall proved a formidable defense.

During WWII this fort was used by the United States to protect the port from submarines or other attacks. The large, concrete structure with dark slits was built by the U.S. Army as a coastal artillery observation post.  It definitely looks different from the 16th century Garitas.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Old Walls of El Morro Contrasted with the WWII artillery addition (top left). In 1992 the fortress was restored to its 1800’s historical form to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovery of Puerto Rico.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Garita of El Morro contrasted with the complex shapes of the thick walls.

In addition to its rich history, El Morro is full of interesting, complex views of the fortification and the city, contrasted with the smooth views of the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay.  So, make sure to have your camera ready as there are many great photo opportunities.

A few highlights of El Morro Fort’s history:

1539, Construction of Castillo San Felipe del Morro started.

1595, First English attack by Sir Francis Drake.  The gunners of El Morro thwarted Drake with their cannons and a metal chain stretching across the entrance to the bay.

1598, Second English attack by Sir George Clifford (Duke of Cumberland).  El Morro fell as the attack was made by land instead of by sea.  The Duke occupied the fort for 6 months but abandoned it after an outbreak of dysentery.  Fort returned to the Spaniards.

1625, Failed attack by the Dutch, under Boudwyn Hendrick.

1634, The construction of the city walls started, as well as a second fortress, Castillo San Cristobal.

1790, Major construction at El Morro and city walls completed.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

Cannon pointing towards the San Juan Bay entrance.

1797, The British, led by Sir Ralph Abercromby, invaded Puerto Rico and once again fail in their attempt to take San Juan and El Morro. The battle of 1797 was one of the largest in Puerto Rico’s history and is reenacted every year on the grounds of El Morro and throughout the city of San Juan.

1898, El Morro fought its final battle when the United States Navy bombarded the fort during the Spanish–American War. The fort suffered substantial damage from the shelling. Puerto Rico becomes U.S. territory.  El Morro gets repaired and the lighthouse is added.

1942, As part of the USA’s World War II preparations, El Morro was fortified with a concrete artillery observation posts and an underground bunker.

1943, Name changed to Ft. Brooke in honor to the first American governor.  Later changed back to El Morro.

1983, Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

The strategically placed circular sentry boxes called, Garitas, have become the national symbol of Puerto Rico.

Quick Facts:

Location: Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Operation Hours: 7 days/week from 9:00am – 6:00pm. The fort is Closed New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Cost: Adults $3 ($5 for combined forts El Morro and San Cristobal), Children under 15 Free

Phone Number: 787-729-6777

Website


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Comments

  1. says

    Ayyy El Morro, I used to go there every time I went to PR to visit family. And El Yunque!!! Such great memories! I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I went to PR. Your pictures are beautiful.

    • says

      Thanks Mica! Even though I go to PR every couple months, I haven’t gone to El Yunque in years! I need to go back! I went to El Morro now since I missed going there for years too. It brought many memories of when I went the when young. Next time I’ll fly a kite on the green lawn. :)

  2. says

    I have never been in El morro but I would like to be there at least once if possible. This is place with great history. Nice photos you have posted. Thank you for sharing.

  3. says

    Nice! When did you visit El Morro? Looks like they have restored much of the fort as it looks a lot newer now. I like the old look though.

    • says

      Hey Andy, Thanks! These pictures were taken last year. Well, the fort hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years (that I can remember at least). I still remember the same or similar character from when I visited it during college and even younger.

  4. P Abrahms says

    Thanks for the information and excellent pictures. I was born at Rodriquez Army Hospital in 1952. My Father commanded the MP Battalion at El Morro in the early 50′s. In fact he was part of the ceremony raising US and Puerto Rico flags with then, Gen. Eisenhower.
    Is there any possibility there are old photos of that ceremony in the archives somewhere? I saw original photos as a kid, but they were pisplaced during multiple moves typical of army career families.
    Thanks for maintaining a beautiful and informative website.

    • says

      Hi P Abrahms. Sorry for the delayed response.
      Wow, so interesting that your father commanded a battalion at El Morro. I believe you will have some luck at the Institute of Culture in Old San Juan. They have archives that date back to the 16th and 17th century. There’s a chance, that if there’s a picture of those ceremonies, it will be there.

      Please, let me know if you need any other help.

      Cheers!

      • P ABrahms says

        Hi Norbert, Thanks for that piece of information regarding some archives that may hold the photos for which I am looking. I love to review your photos and very informative history that accompany your work. I’ll check the Institute’s files and let you know if I find those photos on file. In a few years I hope to get to San Juan and traverse the area again as I wouldn’t have any memory of my first year of life.

        • says

          Thanks! Yes, the institute will be of great help. Years ago when I was doing some research from my thesis project (which was related to the Fort walls around Old San Juan), I found a great deal of images and info over there. Do visit San Juan… a lot has changed, but it still conserves its charm. :)

  5. xavier says

    nice work bro…
    we got one here in cartagena colombia i think its bigger, both are unique in america and it were build by the same man.
    i was under many pirats attacks and have lot of history, it name its also similar “san felipe de barajas”

  6. Tropiclink says

    To experience the historic charm, city’s food, culture and people of Puerto Rico, plan a trip to San Juan.

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