El Morro – A UNESCO World Heritage Site in San Juan

Standing in the city of San Juan is a truly impressive six-level castle fortress designed to guard the city from seaward attacks. Known as El Morro, this impenetrable fort is also referred to as Castillo de San Felipe de Morro and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1933. Visiting this outstanding architectural feat is certainly an experience you won't want to miss.

Aerial view of El Morro Puerto Rico

History of El Morro Puerto Rico

One of the outstanding features of San Juan is the old Spanish citadel – El Morro Puerto Rico. Located on an arrowhead-shaped promontory jutting across the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was perfectly placed to protect the harbor and city from foreign invasion. El Morro, known officially as Fort San Felipe del Morro (or El Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Spanish) was originally constructed in the early 16th century, shortly after Spanish colonizers settled at San Juan and noted the promontory’s advantageous position. Today, El Morro is one of the main features of the San Juan National Historic Site which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

In the early days of Spanish settlement and colonization of the New World, San Juan was an important administrative center whose capacious harbor was a staging area for treasure ships loaded with precious metals bound for Spain. As such, foreign naval forces as well as local pirates sought to capture San Juan from the sea, but were never successful thanks to El Morro. One of the earliest attempts took place in 1595, by the English adventurer Sir Francis Drake – known as “The King’s Pirate”. Drake’s ships were prevented from sailing into San Juan Bay through the use of a heavy chain strung from El Morro to her sister fort across the Bay, El Cañuelo.

The original phase of El Morro’s construction

The original phase of El Morro’s construction was completed in about 40 years, but the citadel was continually upgraded over the proceeding century in order to meet advances in ship design and military power. By the late 1700s, El Morro’s walls were an astounding 18 feet thick and featured inaccessible sentry posts known as Garitas that are today distinctive symbols of Old San Juan. Upon achieving victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the US military occupied El Morro until 1961. The entire complex was restored and renovated in 1992, becoming one of Puerto Rico’s most popular tourist attractions.

Construction of El Morro Puerto Rico took place from 1540 through to 1589 and the structure was named to honor the noble King Phillip II. A fine fort, it stands 140 ft above sea level offering exquisite views over the bay of San Juan and the Atlantic Ocean. Brilliantly designed with outposts, barracks, dungeons and a labyrinth of tunnels, El Morro was only captured once in its long history. Certain sections of the huge fort suffered damage over the years and these were carefully repaired in 1992. Today the fort of El Morro falls under the care of the National Park Service of Puerto Rico. Statistics state that some two million tourists visit this magnificent site annually to take a leisurely walk through 400 years of history.

El Morro Fortress

Field of Fire

To reach the El Morro Fortress you will have to walk across the Field of Fire. This is a large open piece of ground. All trees and plants were removed from the area so that any forces attacking the fort could be clearly seen and quickly dealt with. The entrance of El Morro requires that you cross a dry moat on the drawbridge. These moats were designed to defend the lower section of the fortress’ walls. Mounted proudly above the entranceway is a coat of arms representative of the kings of Spain. Beyond the entrance you will enter the main plaza on level five. Here you can picture the soldiers standing at attention in this courtyard as they hear their orders barked out at them or as they await inspection. Also in this section are vaulted that which once served as quarters and storerooms. Once inside you will discover audiovisual presentations, exhibits and a bookstore. To the right you will see the highest level of El Morro, level six. This area features two half-bastions as well as artillery observation posts and a lighthouse.

El Morro’s Six Levels

Walking from the main plaza you will come to the main artillery ramp used for moving cannons from the lower to the upper levels of the fort. As you stroll down you will enter lower patio or level three. Here you find more quarters, latrines, kitchens and the blacksmith’s forge. The ramp will also take you through level four which served as the main battery with its many cannons. When you make your way down from level three you will enter El Morro’s oldest section. A turret styled tower was built here in 1539. Down a further set of stairs you come to the Water Battery. Canons strategically placed here could easily cause major damage to any ships attempting to land in the harbor. Looking across you will see the Harbor Entrance which was protected by El Morro’s blazing guns.

El Morro Puerto Rico, Fort of San Juan, can be visited every day of the week between 09:00 am and 05:00pm.

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