El Morro: The Most Popular Historic Site in Puerto Rico

Old walls of El Morro in late afternoon light with blue sky, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
••• Bob Stefko/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

First-time visitors to Old San Juan simply cannot leave without visiting El Morro. The fortress is one of the most impressive structures on the island, encapsulating Puerto Rico’s role as a guardian of the New World. Within these walls, you can feel the awesome power this bastion of defense once commanded, and you can bear witness to nearly half a century of military history that began with the Spanish conquistadores and ended with World War II.

Pros

  • One of Puerto Rico's most enduring symbols
  • A visual tour of 400 years of military history
  • Breathtaking ocean views

Cons

  • A bit of a walk to get to
  • Be prepared to climb steps and steep slopes

Description

  • Puerto Rico's most picturesque military structure, El Morro took over 200 years to build.
  • Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983.
  • Successfully repelled England's noted naval bully, Sir Francis Drake, in 1595.
  • Used by the U.S. in World War II to track the movement of German submarines in the Caribbean.

Review

Its full name is the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, but it is better known by El Morro, which means "promontory." Perched on the northwestern-most point of Old San Juan, this daunting citadel must have been an intimidating sight to enemy ships. In fact, in its long history, El Morro was never defeated by a naval attack. El Morro only fell once, in 1598, when the Earl of Cumberland took the fortress by land.

You’ll follow in the Earl’s footsteps as you cross a large green field to get to the fort. Today, people come here to relax, picnic, and fly kites; the sky is full of them on a clear day. (You can buy one—they're called chiringas—at a nearby stall.)

Once you reach the citadel, take your time to explore its ingenious architecture.

El Morro is made up of six staggered levels, incorporating dungeons, barracks, passageways, and storerooms. Walk along its ramparts, where cannons still face the ocean, and step inside one of the domed garitas, or sentry boxes, which are themselves an iconic symbol of Puerto Rico. Looking out across the bay, you'll see another, smaller fortification. Called El Cañuelo, this was El Morro’s partner in the island’s defense: ships hoping to attack Puerto Rico would be cut down in a barrage of crisscrossing cannon fire.

Two modern structures were added to El Morro after Puerto Rico became a commonwealth. A lighthouse that was damaged and repaired by the U.S. in 1906-08 stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the structure. During World War II, the U.S. Army added another entirely incongruous fortification, installing a military bunker on the top level.

The Basics