On March 30th, 2021, Skip, Ezra, and I made our way to Old San Juan to walk along with the military outpost for Spain and later the United States for over 500 years.
The Old San Juan was founded in 1521 by Spanish settlers. The first fortification, La Fortaleza (The Fortress), began construction in 1533 and currently serves as the governor's mansion. The Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro for short, was the second fort built on the islet of Old San Juan and Puerta de Tierra. El Morro's construction commenced in 1539 and finished in 1790; during those 250 years, El Morro went from a promontory mounted with a cannon to a six-level fortress designed to unnerve attackers approaching from the sea.
A half-mile across 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 would try to enter the bay, the two regiments created a crossfire that effectively closed the bay entrance and the rest of San Juan. Thanks to El Morro (and El Cañuelo), the Spaniards were able to defend Puerto Rico from invasions by the British, Dutch, and pirates.
In 1898, due to the Spanish-American War, the island changed hands from Spain to the United States. El Morro was designated as part of Fort Brooke and actively used as a military installation during the First and Second World Wars.
In 1961, the US Army retired El Morro, passing it on to the National Park Service to establish a museum. And in 1983, El Morro and the walled city of Old San Juan were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro was finished to help protect Puerto Rico when the British attacked with considerable resources in 1797. One hundred years later, though, when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the story was completely different.
1539 – Construction of the first harbor defenses at El Morro and La Fortaleza authorized by King Charles V. 1587 – Engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli layout the main design for El Morro still seen today. Click HERE for more information about the forts.
El Morro is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The entrance fee is $7 for adults, and children under 15 years of age have free admission. On certain days of the year, the National Park Service offers free entry to all visitors, including Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, National Park week in April, and Veterans' Day in November. The receipt will also allow you to visit the other fort, Castillo San Cristóbal, without having to pay a separate entrance fee (and vice versa).
Wear weather-appropriate clothing and shoes. Much of the fort's inner courtyard is exposed and can get quite hot during sunny days; shorts, loose, light-colored clothing, and sunscreen are highly recommended. And drink plenty of water! On rainy days, the ramps leading to the different levels can be pretty slippery. Best to wear sturdy footwear with good traction. The fort is also very windy, so skirts and dresses are not recommended, and you'll want to hang on to your hats.
To reach El Morro, you'll walk up a path that crosses the giant lawn in front of the fort. You're greeted at the entrance by the National Park employees that charge the entrance fee. Park rangers lead tours through the fort in English and Spanish, but you're free to explore the different levels and rooms on your own if you prefer. Each section has re-creations of barracks, kitchens, and other facilities used by the soldiers. Informative presentations paint a vivid picture of the importance of Puerto Rico as a strategic entry point to the Americas and the evolution of El Morro and its artillery over the last five centuries.
If you're looking to take some impressive vacation photos, visit the lowest level of the fort that nearly reaches the water. You'll get an idea of the magnitude and size of this military installation. You'll also be able to see El Cañuelo, located on a small island across the water. You'll enjoy a view of the Atlantic Ocean, Old San Juan, the cemetery, and La Perla, a neighborhood built outside the wall from the higher levels. From El Morro's dry moat, you can access an entrance to the Paseo del Morro, a pathway that follows the city's outer wall to the Gate of San Juan (approximately 1.5 miles). You can linger for a while on the giant lawn in front of El Morro. Or fly a kite, a local tradition that has lasted through generations.
We decided we did not want to go inside because we had our 18-month-old, who wanted to run around and act like a toddler. We were unsure how she would affect us while inside and decided we did not want to waste our money. We decided we would save this adventure when she was older and could admire and learn the history.
We walk down the staircase that was located near the entrance at Castillo San Felipe Del Morro and followed the trail that went around the fort, along the ocean, and through the bright, beautiful, and colorful town.
This was our first day in Puerto Rico and the first ocean view we had. The ocean was so beautiful. It was so clear and had a teal color at the shore and off the distance was such a dark blue color. The waves were hitting the coast with so much force we were getting wet.
The town was nothing like I had ever seen before. The streets were very narrow on cobblestone. The buildings were all close together and so bright with every color of the rainbow. It was busy, but the people were so pleasant and kind.
The trail is a 3.3-mile loop that extends from the Castillo San Cristobal over to the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro which you will walk above the ocean and see the most Magnificat cemetery. Once you reach the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, you can pay and go inside or make your way down the staircase and follow the trail along the ocean. Once you arrive at a red entrance doorway, you can go through which enters into the town or continue straight and continue to walk along the sea.