The Forts of San Juan

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For those of us in cold climes, this time of year our thoughts often turn to sunny, warm beaches. My thoughts have turned to Puerto Rico, the only place I’ve visited in the Caribbean. My mistake was to visit in June, but it was a work trip and I didn’t have a choice. If you want deep penetrating warmth, visit in June.

The cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan glow iridescent blue after a rainstorm.   Shipped in from Spain as ballast in ships, they pave the narrow winding streets and add the crowning bit of color to the already brilliant hues of the buildings. The historic walled city is one of the most enchanting history places I’ve visited. The walls themselves are an engineering marvel. Built around 1630, their average height is 40 ft. (12 m) with a thickness of 20 ft. (6 m) at their base to 12 ft. (3.5 m) at the top. For centuries they protected the town from all types of invaders.

Any person who is dazzled by historic forts should be sure to visit San Juan. Two huge forts dominate the landscape. Today both forts are protected by the U.S. National Park Service and are designated by the United Nations as World Heritage Sites.

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro dominates the entrance of San Juan Bay and guarded the rich port from water attack. Built by the Spanish beginning in 1539, it has withstood various attacks over the years. Its six levels rise 140 feet (42 m) above sea level and 18 ft. (5.4 m)weathered sandstone walls surround it.

Officially named in honor of Spain’s King Philip II, its popular name is “El Morro” which means promontary. The fort offers a stunning view and on windy days, the expansive green esplanade between fort and city is filled with people of all ages flying kites.

A mile or so down the coast stands the second major fortification, Castillo San Cristobal, which guarded against a land attack. Begun a century later, it is supposedly the largest Spanish fort in the New World. The sprawling complex covers 27 acres (11 hectares). In 1898 the first shots of the Spanish-American War in Puerto Rico were fired by the fort’s cannons at the U.S. Navy.

Most people are familiar with the unique rounded sentry boxes that are positioned at various points on the walls. Called “garitas,” they are seen throughout Old San Juan. I was told they are unique to Puerto Rico forts and have become a symbol of the island. Cristobal includes the Garita del Diablo or Devil’s Sentry Box, one of the oldest parts of the fort and famous in Puerto Rican legend. On misty days the devil himself would snatch away unlucky sentries in this remote area on the edge of the sea.

I’m a bit of a fort geek so was majorly impressed with the scale of these two places. But any visitors, kids especially, can let their imagination wander as they explore the labyrinth of ramps, guard stations, dungeons, vaults, lookouts, dry moats, barracks and chapels of these vestiges of Spain’s glory in the New World. There’s always time for the beach later.

Have you visited San Juan? What did you think? Have you been to other history places in the Caribbean? Tell us.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 16th century, 17th century, fort, International, military, national park and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Forts of San Juan

  1. Beth Boland says:

    And speaking of kids . . . , the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program () offers an online lesson plan on The Forts of Old San Juan, which is available in both English and Spanish. You’ll find the English version at and the Spanish version at .

  2. steven pyle says:

    this place is unbelivable !! from the stairways to the dungens where you might see a ghost or two it is truley worth the trip to San Juan

  3. Pingback: A fort in an idyllic place | historyplaces

  4. Pingback: The Roman wall of Chichester | historyplaces

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