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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.