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El Morro: Explore a 400 Year Old Fort



I’d like to invite you to take another trip with me down history lane if you will. Last year as most of you are aware I visited home in August. Sometimes, you don’t really realize the importance of something until you go there and experience it for yourself so you can share it with others. This evening, I want to share with you a little about the El Morro and the important part it played in OSJ. As, I take you through the history of the El Morro I have posted pics that I took myself or had taken of me. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did putting it together for your viewing pleasure.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) “discovered” Puerto Rico and claimed it for Spain. A little known fact is that Columbus called the whole island San Juan, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Puerto Rico (puerto = “port” and rico = “rich”) was the name given to what is known today as the Old San Juan area. It was only later that the names were reversed and the whole island became known as Puerto Rico.


After Spain claimed the island and started colonizing it, many pirates and privateers tried to invade to get the island and some of Spain’s riches! So Spain always had to fight to keep claim to the island.

After the original fort Fortaleza (now the Governor’s mansion) was deemed to be inadequate protection for the harbor, it was decided that a fort was needed in a better location. So they built a small structure at the north-west tip of Old San Juan, at the entrance to the harbor, on the current site of El Morro. Built between 1539-1540, it was a small fort that held a few men and only 4 cannons. If you head into the tunnel you will find the shell fragment from the 1898 US bombardment that is stuck in the wall. It really is an amazing sight to see.DSC_0327

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 Fort, or officially Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, stands guard at the entrance to San Juan harbor as a reminder of a by-gone era when invading countries would attempt sea attacks to take this prized city and harbor. This beautiful 6-level fort rises from sea level to 145 feet (44 m) high and named in honor of Spain’s King Philip II. The Fort wasn’t initially built as the huge structure that you see today. It has gone through many enlargements and modifications, from the time it was first constructed by Spain through the time that it was occupied by the US Army. DSC_0255

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.


The structure is a hulking six-story fortress built between 1539 and 1589, withstanding the two World Wars and several other scrimmages. When seen from the sea, you get the sense of how this imposing fortress commanded the respect of those that attempted to defeat it. El Fuerto San Felipe del Morro is Puerto Rico’s go-to tourist attraction, both for its extensive history and its outstanding vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. You can also walk though the fortress’ depths, which include a maze of tunnels, barracks and prison cells.


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.

In its last test of strength, El Morro stood as a protector of San Juan during the Spanish-American war. In 1898, the US Navy began sea bombardment against El Morro. After only a few hours, it was evident that the old walls and weathered cannons were no match for the modern US weapon technology. The war ended with the signing of Treaty of Paris. Spain ceded ownership of the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines to the United States.


So following the Spanish-American war, the damaged structure and the lighthouse of El Morro were rebuilt. During World War I, the US used El Morro as an outpost to detect and control hostile water activities. It became part of Fort Brooke for the US Army. The green lawn in front of El Morro was even turned into a golf course! For World War II , they added the ugly observation bunkers that can be seen today.

In 1949, El Morro and San Cristobal became the San Juan National Historic Site, administered by the US National Park Service. In 1983, it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.


In honor of the Quincentennial of the voyages of Columbus in 1992 the exterior esplanade was cleared of palm trees that had been planted by the U.S. Army in the Fort Brooke era, and restored to the open appearance this “field-of-fire” for El Morro’s cannon would have had in colonial Spanish times. Parking lots and paved roads were also removed, and the El Morro lighthouse repaired and restored to its original appearance. El Morro was used as a film set in the 1996 motion picture Amistad.

Steven Spielberg used it to represent a fort in Sierra Leone where African slaves were auctioned in 1839. African slave labor was used in addition to local labor to help build the Castillo. El Morro was a defensive military fortification and a major component of San Juan’s harbor defense system. Puerto Rico as such was considered by the Spanish crown as the “Key to the Antilles”; no enemy ship could navigate its waters without fear of capture.


I’d love to thank you for taking this time to travel back to the past with me to discover something you may not of known about Puerto Rico before. I, think it’s really important to understand the back story of Puerto Rico so you can truly get an appreciation for the culture and history of this captivating island. Now, that you have a feel for the soul of PR when are you booking that flight or cruise to go visit? It’s truly an awesome experience to get a feel for the island and it’s people. Once you go you’ll never want to leave.

As, always thank you for reading BBC Fam. it’s always a treat for me to share something amazing with ya’ll!


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