El Morro in Puerto Rico

El Morro in San Juan, Puerto RicoAfter the streets of Old San Juan, El Morro takes you back a few centuries more.

Dominating the headland of Old San Juan, the fort’s 140 foot high walls tower above you, and provide protection against the elements as well as enemies.

Starting in the main square, you can either take a guided tour of the fortress, or using a map of El Morro take yourself step-by-step. A suggested route is marked on the map and brief explanations of what you see provided.

On the tour you’ll see the basic conditions in which the inhabitants lived, the tiny chapel in which they worshipped and the cannons used to defend the castle.

On display is an 8-pounder cannon made in Barcelona. It required at least six artillerymen to work it and could fire at a rate of about 2 balls per minute – 120 feet (36 meters) above sea level, the cannon had a range of around half a mile.

The tour also takes you to the upper levels where you get fantastic views of San Juan, and inland Puerto Rico as well as looking at the sea far below.

 

Construction

The oldest Spanish fort in the New World, El Morro was built to protect San Juan from attacks from the sea and to control entry to the harbour.

More correctly the fort is called San Felipe del Morro. The name by which the fort is commonly known, El Morro, is the Spanish word for headland – it refers to the headland on which the fort stands.

Construction began in 1539 and went through several phases of building over the next 248 years – the external walls of El Morro swallowed the original construction as the site grew larger.

Eventually standing six stories tall, with 140 ft (42 meters) high walls that are sometimes 18 ft (5 meters) thick, El Morro was completed in 1787.

On the other side of the harbour is another fortress, San Juan de la Cruz, better known as El Cañuelo – together the forts were able to catch potential invaders in a deadly crossfire.

 

 

A cannon in El MorroThree flagas atop El Morro
Left: A 8-pounder cannon cast in Barcelona in 1767 guards El Morro. Right: the flags of the Spanish military, Puerto Rico and the USA fly high above the fort.

 

Under attack

Despite the defenses, El Morro did come under attack.

Among them was English pirate Sir Francis Drake in 1595. In a sea-based attack that ended in failure, there is a story that a cannonball fired from El Morro passed clean through the cabin of his flagship.

The only time that El Morro was taken was in 1598, by George Clifford, the Duke of Cumberland. Attacking onland from the east, San Juan and El Morro fell to the attacking force.

However, the occupation lasted just 6 weeks – overcome by dystentry, the invaders were forced to abandon their conquest.

Another attempt at capturing the fortress from land was undertaken by the Dutch in 1625. However the forces commanded by Boudewijn Hendricksz failed to take El Morro and they retreated after burning San Juan to the ground.

Following this attack, defenses were reinforced. This led to the construction of the city wall between 1630 and 1678. Also, another fortress was designed to protect against attacks from the east – construction on San Cristóbal began in 1634.

The final attack on El Morro was in 1898. During the Spanish-American War, US Warships fired on the lighthouse and destroyed it – the lighthouse that stands there today was built in 1908.

 

The 20th Century and beyond

Under the United States El Morro continued to be used by the military. Gun emplacements were added during World War I and when the United States entered into World War II in 1942, an observation post and underground bunker were added.

El Morro was made a National Historic site in 1949 finally in 1961 the military pulled out of both El Morro and San Cristóbal. Responsibility was handed to the to US National Park Service, who preserve the forts as museums to this day.

In 1983 the United Nations declared El Morro a World Heritage Site and in 1992 the grounds, which had been converted to car parking and roads, were restored to their 18th century state.

Opening hours:

9:00 am to 5:00 pm June to November
9:00 am to 6:00 pm December to May

Entry is €3. For slightly more you also have entry into Fort San Cristóbal within 7 days.

 
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