Located on the headland overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro Fort (Castillo San Felipe del Morro) was built to protect the city of San Juan from seaborne enemies. For those of you arriving by sea today, you can see just why this imposing fortress commanded the respect of those that attempted to defeat it.
When it was first constructed back in 1539 El Morro was just a simple tower, the layout that you see 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.
From its very beginnings El Morro Fort has seen its fair share of action:
1595, Sir Francis Drake fails in his attempt to attack El Morro. The gunners of El Morro thwarted Drake with their cannons and a metal chain stretching across the entrance to the bay.
1598, the Duke of Cumberland battled his way into El Morro not my sea but by land and occupied the fort for 6 months. Illness to his men forced the Duke to give up his temporary residence in El Morro and the fort was again returned to the Spaniards.
1625, The Dutch attacked San Juan, but El Morro resisted under the leadership of Spanish Governor De Haro and Captain and the help of the local Puerto Rico militia.
1630, the construction of the city walls started and were completed around 1678. These are the same walls that you will see today as you tour Old San Juan
1797, the British with several thousand men invaded Puerto Rico and once again attempt to take San Juan. Once again El Morro and the Spanish were able to defeat their attackers. 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 a lot of damage from the shelling and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Under the new ownership of the United States the damage to El Morro was repaired and the lighthouse that you see today was built.
1942, as part of the USA’s Second World War preparations El Morro was fortified with a concrete artillery observation posts and an underground bunker
Today this World Heritage Site is MUST SEE for visitors to San Juan.
Admission to the fort is $3 for adults ($5 if you buy a combined ticket that also includes San Cristobel Fort) and children under 15 get in for free. It is well worth this admission price. The fort is exposed to the elements and as such it can be very hot walking around the fort, so make sure you have something to drink while you are touring the fort. Note: the small gift shop in the Main Plaza sells bottles of water.
Once you are inside you can watch a short video about the history of the fort highlighting how it was construction and how it faired during its several battles. The video is shown in English on the hour and half hour and in Spanish every 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. You will also find a Park Ranger giving a short orientation talk on the hour in English and 30 minutes past the hour in Spanish.
If you’d rather skip these two, then just take the guide map and go and explore the 6 levels that make up this magnificent fortification.
Highlights of El Morro
The Main Plaza of El Morro was the area where troops would assemble for parades and daily inspection. The well in the center of the plaza held around 220,000 gallons of rainwater; enough to last a year if needed. The rooms around the sides were used as living quarters, storerooms, powder magazine storage, prison cells and not forgetting canon firing positions. There was also a chapel where the soldiers would worship.
To the west of the Main Plaza is the ramp leading to the upper level. Here you will find air vents that provided fresh air to the rooms below. The sentry boxes known locally as Garitas are position all along the upper and lower walls of the fort and make for great photo opps.
The Upper level is also home to the lighthouse that was rebuilt in 1908 and also to the three flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and the Cross of Burgundy, which was flown by the Spanish Forces from 1516 to 1785.
From the upper level you will have great views of the San Juan Cemetery to the east and to the west across the bay you will see the remains of Fort San Juan de La Cruz (El Canuelo)
To access the lower levels you need to head back down to the Main Plaza
You can get down to the lower levels by taking the ramp / stairs directly opposite the entrance to El Morro or by taking the Triangular Staircase to the east of the main plaza. If you have small children I would recommend taking the main ramp/staircase as the triangular staircase is very steep and can be slippery.
At the bottom of the main ramp/staircase is the Bateria de Santa Barbara and it was the most powerful cannon battery of the fort. Here you will also find more of the 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.
The Old Tower, is the oldest part of El Morro and dates back to 1539 where it would have housed just four small cannons. If you head into the tunnel you will find the shell fragment from the 1898 US bombardment that is stuck in the wall
More steps lead down to a lower level which would have been used for living quarters, storage rooms etc.
From all levels of El Morro you will have fantastic views make sure you have your camera with you.
Finally, if time permits take a stroll around the outside of El Morro for more spectacular views. The large green field in front of the fort is an extremely popular spot for locals to picnic and fly kites. There are also great views of the San Juan Cemetery and San Juan Bay.
What: El Morro Fort
Where: Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
When: 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 Cristobel), Children under 15 Free
Map It: You can find El Morro Fort on our interactive map here
Additional Information: There is a small gift shop and toilets with baby changing facilities located just off the Main Plaza
Photo resource: wikicommons