Castle San Felipe del Morro “El Morro”
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Castle San Felipe del Morro also known as “El Morro”, located at the northwest point of the Old San Juan islet, is considered the most emblematic fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas between the 16th and 18th centuries. Castle San Felipe is one of the most picturesque places in the Caribbean with resplendent architecture. It is the most recognized monument and most loved by Puerto Rican families.
More than two million visitors a year explore the castle, making it one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico. The fortification was designed to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from maritime enemies.
Today it welcomes tourist cruisers as they sail in and out of the bay but for most of its nearly 500-year history it was an important military post for Spain and later for the United States.
This beautiful 6-level fort was named after King Felipe II of Spain. Castle San Felipe del Morro was not initially built like the massive structure seen today. The fort has undergone many extensions and modifications, since it was built by Spain until it was occupied by the US Army.
Castle San Felipe del Morro is a massive structure, divided into six levels, each level has breathtaking views of the Atlantic and colorful walled islets, making it the perfect place for family and photographers. Most of the levels can be reached via various stairs, ramps, and tunnels. There are some steep steps to the lower levels, but for those who like a challenge, they will be able to enjoy all levels of the fort.
For most of its nearly 500-year history it was an important military post for Spain and later for the United States.
The fort covers a 140-foot-high promontory at the entrance to San Juan Bay. The 6-level fortification facing the Atlantic Ocean were designed to create devastating artillery fire on enemy ships. At the time of its completion around 1790, it had a reputation for being invincible and was the most feared of all Spanish colonial fortifications.
Half a mile from the mouth of the Bay of San Juan is another smaller fort called Fortín San Juan de la Cruz, known as El Cañuelo. When enemy ships attempted to enter the bay, the two forts created a crossfire that effectively closed off the entrance to the bay and the rest of San Juan. Thanks to El Morro and El Cañuelo, the Spanish were able to defend Puerto Rico from invasions by the British and Dutch, as well as pirates.
The ancient underground tunnels that originally connected the forts are today only joined by two modern trolleys that transport visitors from one side to the other. The walk is beautiful along Norzagary Street “waterfront”.
There is a museum in El Morro that offers a history of the fort through exhibits of photographs and historical artifacts, written guidance, and a video presentation. A guided tour is offered every hour, although the informational brochures allow you to walk on your own while learning about the history of the fort.
The National Park Service protects the fortifications of Old San Juan, which, together, have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. With one of the most spectacular views in the Caribbean, El Morro, together with Fort San Cristóbal, forms the National Historic Site of San Juan.
Planning your visit
Castle El Morro is open seven days a week from 9:00a.m. at 6:00p.m. closed on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The admission fee is $10.00 per person for ages 16 and over, children under 15 are free. The ticket is valid to visit the forts of El Morro and San Cristóbal for 24 hours. On certain days of the year, the National Park Service offers free admission to all visitors, this includes Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, National Park Week in April, and Veterans Day in November.
It is recommended that you wear appropriate clothing and shoes for the weather. During sunny days, much of the fort’s inner courtyard is exposed and it can get quite hot. Shorts, light colored light clothing and sunscreen are recommended. Bring and drink lots of water. On rainy days, the ramps leading to the different levels can be quite slippery. It is best to wear sturdy shoes with good traction.
Your visit to el Morro
From the moment one walks through the narrow door, you can see the flags flying in the stiff Atlantic breeze, smell the salty sea air, and easily be transported back to another time in history and imagine soldiers in old-fashioned uniforms marching along the edge of wall where cannons fit snugly into embrasures.
To get to Castle El Morro, you have to walk along a path that crosses the giant lawn in front of the fort. The employees of the National Park will greet you at the entrance and charge the entrance fee. Rangers run free hour-long tours in both English and Spanish, but if you prefer, you can explore the different levels and rooms on your own. The National Park Service provides you with a map when you pay the entrance fee. You can use the map and descriptions of the different parts of the fort to take your self-guided tour and set out to explore the fort on your own.
Each section has recreations of barracks, kitchens, and other facilities used by soldiers. The informative presentations paint a vivid picture of the importance of Puerto Rico as a strategic point of entry to the Americas and the evolution of El Morro and its artillery over the past five centuries.
If you want to take impressive photos, visit the lowest level of the fort that almost reaches the water and you will get an idea of the magnitude and size of this military installation. On the other side of the water, you can also see El Cañuelo, located on a small island. From the higher levels, you will enjoy a view of the Atlantic Ocean, Old San Juan, the cemetery, and La Perla, a neighborhood built outside the wall. From the dry moat of El Morro, you can access an entrance to Paseo del Morro, a path that follows the outer wall of the city to the Puerta de San Juan (approximately 1.5 miles). Or you can linger on the giant lawn in front of El Morro and fly a chiringa, a local tradition that has lasted for generations.
Castle El Morro is a fascinating labyrinth of dungeons, barracks, vaults, viewpoints, and ramps. The closest parking lot is in the underground facility under the Plaza del Quinto Centenario in the Ballajá barracks on Calle Norzagaray. There is a sourvenires shop.
Points of interest
These are some of the most interesting sights and places to see in El Morro. These are ideal and excellent for taking pictures and spending with the family.
- Garitas: The Garitas or “sentry boxes” are located around the outer walls of the fort. These are small enclosures where the Spanish stood guard, today you can enjoy fantastic views. There are several of them that you can enter. These sentry boxes have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico. You can see their images on many items and sourvenires, from license plates to glasses and t-shirts.
- Flags: – The three flags that fly today in El Morro are the flag of the United States, the flag of Puerto Rico and the flag of the Cross of Burgundy. The flag of the Cross of Burgundy is the old Spanish military flag that was in El Morro between 1539 and 1785.
- Lighthouse: The gray crenellated lighthouse on the sixth floor has been in operation since 1846 (although the tower itself dates from 1906), making it the oldest light station on the island still in use today. After suffering severe damage during a bombing by the US Navy during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the original lighthouse was rebuilt with unique Hispano-Moorish features, a style that blends surprisingly well with the rest of the fort.
- Canyon area: This area was used to protect the entrance to the port of San Juan with cannon energy. Some of the remaining canyons are on display near this area. It is now a beautiful viewing area, offering great views of the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
- Old tower: – The Old Tower or Old Tower is the oldest part of El Morro. If you go down the tunnel, you can see a shell fragment from the 1898 American bombing that is still stuck in the wall.
- Kitchen and forge:In this area, you can see the kitchen where the meals were prepared and the forge where they did some of their metal work. The walls are still stained with soot from the hot fires they had in these areas.
- Stairs: Be sure to see the spiral and triangular staircases that go from one level to another.
- Bathrooms: There are fantastic views from the window in each of the bathrooms.
The lands of el Morro
The lawn where soldiers used to march is now a very lively and cheerful place. The grounds of Castle El Morro is a great place to fly a kite. On weekends, the fields leading to the fort are filled with families with children, hikers, lovers, and beach-flyers. The scene becomes a kind of impromptu festival with food carts on the perimeter. Annually during the month of March the annual festival of Kites takes place. There are Kites for sale in the stalls just in front of the fort, or in the nearby commerce establishments.
The National Park Service maintains this fort and the small military museum on the premises. It was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations “Unesco” in 1983.
The city of Old San Juan was founded in 1521 by Spanish colonizers. The first fortification was La Fortaleza, which began construction in 1533 and is currently the governor’s mansion. After the original fort Fortaleza (now the governor’s mansion) was deemed not adequate protection for the harbor, it was decided that a fort in a better location was needed. It was then that they built a small structure in the extreme northwest of Old San Juan, at the entrance to the port, on the current site of El Morro. Built between 1539-1540, it was a small fort that housed a few men and only 4 cannons.
Construction of the fort began in 1539 in a place chosen for its strategic location at the entrance to one of the best ports in the Caribbean area. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, distinguished Italian military engineers, Bautista Antonelli and Juan Bautista Antonelli, transformed El Morro from its original medieval tower into a thick-walled masonry fortress, capable of fully resisting the impact of cannons.
The new fort was put to the test during the early stages of its construction. In 1595, the only one, Sir Francis Drake led an attack on San Juan. Drake had earned a reputation for being invincible, and his attack was perceived as a major challenge for the early stages where Spanish defenses were still vulnerable. However, good luck was on the side of the Spanish. A miscalculation by Drake, coupled with the bravery of the fort’s defenders, led to a totally unexpected defeat for the English. Spain celebrated this victory and perceived it as an omen of the fort’s importance and the challenge it presented to would-be attackers. The Castillo San Felipe del Morro became the gateway to the Spanish empire.
In 1598, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, launched a second attack on San Juan. Having learned from Drake’s defeat and acknowledging the difficulty of facing El Morro by sea, Clifford targeted the fort’s most vulnerable points, its land side. Its success put Puerto Rico under English rule for a period of approximately two months. However, unfortunately for the English, according to documentation, the dysentery quickly forced the invaders to abandon their prize.
The Dutch were the next to try to take El Morro. In 1625, the Countries of Holland (Netherlands) were fighting for their independence from Spain and attacked San Juan as part of that war. However, after 21 days of siege and battle, the invaders could not force the Spanish to hand over El Morro. Running out of supplies and ammunition, the Dutch decided to abandon the islet, but not before burning and reducing the city to ashes.
In the late 1700s, the Spanish crown sent two Irishmen, Marshal Alexander O’Reilly and Chief Engineer Colonel Thomas O’Daly to reform Puerto Rico’s troops and fortifications. O’Daly was responsible for the last major works and renovations at El Morro. Castillo San Felipe del Morro was completed in time to help protect Puerto Rico when the British attacked with considerable resources in 1797. However, a hundred years later, when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the story was completely different. El Morro and the entire defense system complex completed in the previous century were obsolete. The Industrial Revolution had given rise to advances in technology, weaponry, and military tactics that rendered the fort obsolete.
The proud, once impregnable six-tier fortress was an easy target for the powerful new naval breech-loading artillery the Americans used. For the first time in more than 400 years, enemy fire reached and struck El Morro. The image of the iconic El Morro hit by projectiles and covered in a layer of smoke was a visual testimony that history had taken a turn. The Spanish-American War marked the end of the Spanish presence in America and the beginning of the United States as a great world power.
In 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the island passed from Spain to the United States. El Morro was designated as part of Fort Brooke and was actively used as a military installation during World War I and World War II.
In 1961, the United States Army officially withdrew from El Morro. The fort became part of the National Park Service to be preserved as museums. In 1983, the Castle and the city walls were declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations (Unesco).
In honor of the Quincentennial of Columbus’s voyages in 1992, the outer esplanade was cleared of palm trees that had been planted by the United States Army in the era that it belonged to Fort Brooke, and restored to the open appearance of this “field. of fire “from the Morro cannon would have had in Spanish colonial times. Parking lots and paved roads were also removed, and the El Morro lighthouse was repaired and restored to its original appearance.