Castillo de puerto rico: Exploring Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan

Park Components — El Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also known as “El Morro”), perhaps the most iconic fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas, covers a 140 foot-high promontory at the entrance to the Bay of San Juan. This fortress consists of 6 levels facing the Atlantic Ocean, all of which were designed to create a devastating artillery fire over enemy ships. By the time of its completion around 1790, it had the reputation of being unconquerable and was the most feared of all the Spanish colonial fortifications.

Construction of the fort began in 1539 on a site chosen for its strategic location at the entrance to one of the best harbors in the Caribbean area. During the late 16th and early 17th century the distinguished Italian military engineers, Bautista Antonelli and Juan Bautista Antonelli transformed El Morro from its original medieval tower shape to a thick-walled masonry stronghold, capable of fully resisting the impact of cannon balls.

The new fort was put to the test during the early stages of its construction. In 1595, the one and only, Sir Francis Drake led an attack against San Juan. Drake had earned a reputation as invincible, and his attack was perceived as a major challenge to the still vulnerable first stages of the Spanish defenses. However, good fortune was on the side of the Spanish. A miscalculation by Drake, together with the bravery of the fort’s defenders led to a totally unexpected defeat for the English. Spain celebrated this victory and perceived it to be a portent of the importance of the fort and the challenge it presented to would-be attackers. Castillo San Felipe del Morro became the gateway to the Spanish empire.

In 1598, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, launched a second attack against San Juan. Having learned from Drake’s defeat and recognizing the difficulty of taking on El Morro by sea, Clifford targeted the most vulnerable point of the fort, its land side. His success brought Puerto Rico under English rule for a period of approximately two months. Unfortunately for the English however, according to documentation, dysentery quickly forced the invaders to abandon their prize.

The Dutch were the next to set their sights on taking El Morro. In 1625, the Netherlands were fighting for their independence from Spain and they attacked San Juan as part of that war. However, after 21 days of siege and battle, the invaders were unable to force The Spanish to surrender El Morro to them. Running out of supplies and ammunition, the Dutch decided to abandon the islet, but not without first burning the city down to ashes.
During the late 1700’s, the Spanish crown sent two Irishmen, Field Marshall Alexander O’Reilly and Chief Engineer Colonel Thomas O’Daly to reform the troops and fortifications of Puerto Rico. O’Daly was responsible for the last major construction and renovations at El Morro. Castillo San Felipe del Morro was finished in time 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. El Morro and entire complex system of defense completed in previous century were outdated. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in advances in technology, weaponry and military tactics that rendered the fort obsolete.
The proud, once impregnable six-leveled fortress was an easy target of the new and powerful naval breech loading artillery the Americans brought to bear. For the first time in over 400 years, enemy fire reached and hit El Morro. The shock of the iconic El Morro being hit by shells and covered with smoke is a visual
The image of the iconic El Morro being struck by shells and covered with a pall of smoke was visual testament that history had taken a turn. The Spanish-American War marked the end of the Spanish presence in the Americas and the beginning of the United Sates as a major world power.
El Morro served as an active U.S. military base during the two World Wars. A bunker, naval observation post and an anti-aircraft gun emplacement were added to the historic fortification. Designed and built to fight wooden sailing ships 400 years earlier, el Morro now watched for potential submarine and air attacks.
It became obvious however, that though Castillo San Felipe had admirably served its purpose for centuries, it was now obsolete. After 1949 when San Juan National Historic Site was established, El Morro became the first section of the fortification system to be operated under the auspices of the National Park Service in Puerto Rico. In 1983, it was designated a World Heritage Site.
Today, it stands as a proud and fascinating monument to the bold aspirations and ingenuity of Western military and cultural tradition. Medieval architecture fuses with early modern and engineering elements of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro (A Local’s Guide & History)

Visiting Castillo San Felipe del Morro is something you can’t miss if you’re traveling to Puerto Rico.

With more than 400 years of history, El Morro features an impressive history of battles, and it’s a favorite site to explore in Puerto Rico, for everyone from tourists to Puerto Rican families and locals like myself.

The San Felipe del Morro Castle is a citadel in Old San Juan built under the Spanish Empire. The fort is open to the public from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm daily and the entrance cost is $10. Inside visitors will find troop quarters, prison cells, garitas, and exhibits that showcase the history of the structure that protected the bay for more than four centuries.

In this post, I will go over everything you need to know before visiting El Morro, starting with a short history lesson:

Table of Contents

  • History of El Morro
    • The Arrival of the Spanish Empire
    • The Early 1500’s
    • The Attacks
    • Spanish American War
    • The World Wars
    • National Park Service
  • How to Visit San Felipe del Morro
    • How to Get to El Morro
    • Entrance Costs, Hours, Details
  • What to Expect Inside El Morro
    • The Entrance
    • Main Plaza 
    • The Lighthouse
    • The Main Firing Battery
    • Troop Quarters and the Kitchen
    • The Original Tower
  • Tips for Visiting El Morro
    • Wear Sunblock
    • Visit in the Morning
    • Drink Tons of Water
    • Wear Comfortable Walking Shoes
    • Check the Weather
    • Leave Heavy Luggage at the Hotel
  • Map of El Morro
  • FAQs About El Morro
    • What does El Morro mean in Puerto Rico?
    • Why is El Morro important?
    • Did slaves build El Morro?
    • What is El Morro named after?
    • Who attacked El Morro?
    • When was El Morro used?
  • More Photos of El Morro

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History of El Morro

The Arrival of the Spanish Empire

Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 and claimed it as a territory of Spain. For its prime location and its resources, Puerto Rico quickly caught the attention of multiple powerful countries.

The Early 1500’s

The capital city moved from Caparra to Old San Juan in 1521. Due to constant attacks, the building of different fortifications like La Fortaleza, the current governor’s mansion, began. The lack of San Juan’s defenses gave path to the construction of the original tower of the San Felipe del Morro Fort in 1539.

👉 New to San Juan? Don’t miss my list of the best things to do and see in San Juan.

The Attacks

In 1589, Field Marshal Juan de Tejeda and Juan Bautista Antonelli started building the new facade of Castillo San Felipe del Morro. In the following years, the capital suffered from several attacks:

1595 – Sir Francis Drake, a famous English privateer, loses the Battle of San Juan harbor after burning the Spanish ships on the port.

1598 George Clifford leads an English attack, entering Old San Juan through land and taking over Castillo San Felipe del Morro for 65 days, giving up after most of his troops got sick with dysentery.

1634 – Boudewijn Hendricksz leads Dutch troops to invade Old San Juan but fails to take over El Morro and retires. That same year, the construction of the city walls began with the goal of making Old San Juan a complete walled city.

1797 – British General Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Henry Harvey invade Puerto Rico as a result of the Anglo-Spanish War. After an intense battle of 7 days, the British abandoned the island.

Spanish American War

Signs recount history inside El Morro

During the Spanish American War, the US Navy attacked Castillo San Felipe del Morro three times until it succeeded with an invasion on May 12 of that year. The Spanish American War ended with the Treaty of Paris which turned Puerto Rico into a United States colony.

👉 Are you an adventure seeker? Read now about the other fun activities you can do in Puerto Rico.

The World Wars

El Morro seen from the outside

Although El Morro wouldn’t actively participate in a battle again, the fort continued to serve as a military base for the United States under the name of Fort Brooke. An additional bunker got created on top of Castillo San Felipe del Morro during World War II and in 1908 the lighthouse got remodeled.

National Park Service

In 1961 the United States armed forces moved out from El Morro and the whole fortress became part of the National Park Service. Later in 1983, the United Nations declared Castillo San Felipe del Morro along with the walls of San Juan a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

How to Visit San Felipe del Morro

How to Get to El Morro

🚶‍♀️ Walk – Getting to Castillo San Felipe del Morro walking is easy if you’re staying in Old San Juan. You can reach it through Paseo del Morro, starting at Paseo La Princesa, through Calle Norzagaray, Calle Beneficencia, or Paseo Santa Elena. 

🚗 Drive – Drive into Old San Juan through Avenida Luis Muñoz Rivera and park your car either on the street or one of the private parking lots. The Ballajá Parking Garage is the closest parking lot to the fort. Read this post to learn more about driving in Puerto Rico.

🚌 Public Transportation – If you’re coming from the airport you can take the D53 or T5 AMA to reach Old San Juan.

🚕 Taxi – A taxi from the airport to Old San Juan has a fixed rate of $23, but some additional charges per luggage may apply.

📚 Related Reading: How to Get Around in Puerto Rico

Entrance Costs, Hours, Details

🎟️ Entrance $10 per person. People younger than 15 get in free. The entrance fee also covers the entrance to Castillo San Cristóbal, another fort in San Juan.

🕖 Hours – 9:00 am – 4:30 pm daily. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year

💵 Payment Method – You have to pay with a card as they don’t accept cash right at the entrance of El Morro. 

Accessibility – There isn’t parking right outside El Morro, so you can’t reach the fortress directly by car. The entrance to the fortress is paved and of easy access for wheelchairs. If you need to, you can make further arrangements to visit by calling 787-729-6777.

😷 COVID 19 Regulations – You need to use a mask inside the fortress regardless of your vaccination status. You won’t need to present your vaccine card.

🖥️ Website – National Park Service San Juan

📞 Phone: 787-729-6960

📍 Map It: 501 Bulevar del Valle, San Juan, 00901

🧑🏻‍🤝‍🧑🏻 Tours – At the moment, the park isn’t offering guided tours with a park ranger but you can check the NPS social media page to learn about upcoming events.  

What to Expect Inside El Morro

The Entrance

At the entrance, you will reach the paying booth, where park rangers will greet you, charge your entrance fee, and provide a free map. From there you can choose to do a self guided tour or buy an audio guide to get through the park.

👉Want to visit more amazing places? Check my list of the top places to see in Puerto Rico.

Main Plaza 

This is where you’ll enter San Felipe del Morro and it’s the fifth level of the fortress. You will find exhibits, a bookstore, a chapel, a kitchen, prison cells, and bathrooms with a spectacular view. 

📍 Don’t miss: The garitas, small turrets from where sentinels watched the bay.

The Lighthouse

The lighthouse is on the sixth level of El Morro and you can access it through ramps on both sides of the plaza. You cannot enter the lighthouse itself, but you can tour the complete sixth level of the fortress where you’ll get fantastic views of San Juan harbor, and the landward side where you can appreciate Fort San Cristóbal.  

📍 Don’t miss: The three flags on top of the fort. One of them was the flag used by the Spanish Empire.

The Main Firing Battery

Me next to the Spanish canons

Located on the fourth level, the main firing battery is home to ports for Spanish canons, a platform used for canyons during World War II by the Americans, garitas, canyons, and a latrine. To get to this level you can use two different stairs, the main stairs with 77 steps from the plaza.

📍 Don’t miss: The spiral and triangular staircases the soldiers used to get between floors.

Troop Quarters and the Kitchen

From the fourth level, you can take the stairs down to the third level, where you’ll find the troop quarters, a second plaza, and a kitchen. From this floor, you can also access the second level of the fort.

👉 Local Tip: Staying in San Juan is great, but you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit other great parts of the island. Read my complete list of fun day trips near San Juan so you know where to go.

The Original Tower

Located on the second level of El Morro you will find the original tower that dates back to 1539. The original tower got built after previous fortifications like La Fortaleza failed to protect the San Juan bay from attacks. The original appearance changed with the years. 

📍 Don’t miss: The piece of a canyon ball on the roof, from one of the attacks made to the fortress.

Tips for Visiting El Morro

Wear Sunblock

You’ll spend around two hours in El Morro, and most of that time you will be under the sun. Make sure to wear sunblock and additional coverage like a hat and sunglasses to avoid getting a sunburn. Read about more things to pack for Puerto Rico in this packing guide.

Visit in the Morning

While the Morro is open from early morning up to the afternoon, visiting early in the morning will be more pleasant and will save you the hot hours’ fatigue.

Drink Tons of Water

With all the walking under the sun, it’s easy to get dehydrated. While there is a shop inside El Morro where you can buy refreshments, you can save money by bringing your own reusable bottle of water since there are water fountains next to the bathrooms.

Wear Comfortable Walking Shoes

El Morro is bigger than what it seems on the exterior. You will be walking, climbing stairs and ramps for at least an hour. If you wear sandals not only you’re risking getting hurt, but also falling. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes that help you enjoy your visit.

Check the Weather

You can enjoy El Morro at its best on a sunny day. Exploring the fort during a rainy day without getting wet is close to impossible, plus the ramps and stairs turn dangerous. For a better experience, check the weather with anticipation.

📚 Bookmark for Later: Best Time to Visit Puerto Rico

Leave Heavy Luggage at the Hotel

If you’re visiting El Morro fortress after checking out, try to make the arrangements to store your luggage at your hotel even if you have to pay extra. I’ve seen tourists carrying heavy suitcases and backpacks through the fort risking their safety and ruining their own experience.

👉 Want More Tips? Read my complete list of the best travel tips for Puerto Rico.

Map of El Morro

FAQs About El Morro

What does El Morro mean in Puerto Rico?

El Morro is one of Puerto Rico’s most important landmarks, for being one of the oldest standing structures left by the Spanish Empire in San Juan and Puerto Rico. San Felipe del Morro is also a national symbol of Puerto Ricans’ identity.

Why is El Morro important?

El Morro was an important citadel that defended San Juan from incoming sea attacks during the Spanish Empire’s stay in Puerto Rico, and it was a strategic military defense of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean region. The structure is almost 500 years old.

Did slaves build El Morro?

El Morro was mainly built by artisans, stonecutters, smiths, and slaves, and prisoners. Although some Spaniards contributed to the building of El Morro, they got paid for their labor.

What is El Morro named after?

El Morro’s complete name is San Felipe del Morro and is named after King Phillip II of Spain, since Puerto Rico was under the control of the Spanish Empire during its construction.

Who attacked El Morro?

San Felipe del Morro was attacked by the English, the Dutch, the British, and finally by the Americans in 1898. Sir Francis Drake, a famous privateer, also attacked the island in 1595.

When was El Morro used?

San Felipe del Morro was used from 1539 to 1961, when the United States armed forces abandoned it, becoming part of the National Park Service up to today.

***

Now you know everything you need to visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro on your own.

If you’re wondering what else you could do in the city, check out my local list of fun activities to do in San Juan.

More Photos of El Morro

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Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (El Morro)

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) is the first defensive structure in Puerto Rico, the construction of which was started by order of the Spanish King Charles V in 1593. The fort was built on a rocky promontory at the entrance to the harbor of San Juan, and served to protect the city and all of Puerto Rico from attacks from the sea. Initially, El Morro was a small fort, the garrison of which consisted of only a few soldiers and was armed with 2 cannons. Until 1787, the fortress was repeatedly rebuilt and expanded. As a result of the modifications, Fort El Morro became a six-level fortification with powerful walls 44 meters high and 5.5 meters thick. A lighthouse, a chapel, barracks, dungeons, warehouses, cannon batteries and an extensive system of underground tunnels were built in the fortress. The Castillo de San Felipe del Morro citadel has survived more than one attack both from the sea and from the land. At 159In the year 5, El Morro was attacked in vain by the English pirate Francis Drake, in 1598 the garrison of the fortress held the siege of the English adventurer and corsair George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland for 10 days. It wasn’t until the fort ran out of food and water that the defenders of El Morro capitulated. The British were not able to hold the fortress for a long time, after its return to the rule of the Spaniards, the citadel was significantly strengthened. In 1625, the Dutch corsairs attacked San Juan, they managed to capture the city and approach the walls of El Morro from the land side, however, they failed to take the fortress. This attack forced the Spaniards to fortify the city even more, in 1634-1765 powerful city defensive walls were built around the whole of San Juan, the El Morro fortress was expanded and modified in 1765. At 179In the year 7, the British flotilla tried to besiege the city again, but San Juan remained impregnable. In 1898, the Spanish-American War began, as a result of which Spain lost all of its colonies in the Caribbean. El Morro was bombarded by the cannons of the American ships, and a few hours after the siege began, the Americans dominated the fortress. El Morro turned into the American Fort Brook, during the First and Second World Wars, he served as an outpost of the US Navy. In 1961, the US Army left Puerto Rico, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro became part of the National Historic Museum, at 19In 83, the fortress was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, the flags of Puerto Rico, the United States and the Burgundian Cross, which was used by the Spaniards as a battle banner in 1506-1785, flutter over El Morro. Visitors to El Morro can take a tour of the fortress, visit the dungeons, see the cannon batteries, the most powerful of which is the battery of St. Barbara, and look inside the guard booths «garitas», which have become the national symbol of Puerto Rico.

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Castillo de San Felipe del Morro Castle

Those who like to look at the historical buildings of Castillo de San Felipe San Felipe are definitely worth a visit Morro. It is located in the old part of the city of San Juan — the capital of the country. This fortress was built during the capture of the island by the Spaniards: they tried to defend themselves from the troops of other European countries who wanted to take away the conquered Caribbean islands from them. The castle was named after King Philip II of Spain. Throughout its centuries-old history, it has undergone completions and reconstructions, as a result of which it now looks like a completely modern defense structure with six-level walls over 40 meters high. During World War II, the Americans set up a bunker here. And at 19In 83, the fort was recognized as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Now there is a museum, the doors of which are always open for tourists.

Caribbean National Forest
El Unco Reserve, or Caribbean National Forest is the largest tropical forest in which nature is preserved in its original state. Here, tourists can relax in the shade of trees, admire waterfalls and forest lakes, as well as rare plants and animals (for example, bright green Amazonian parrots that are endangered live here). El Unco is located very close to San Juan, and after a noisy metropolitan life, it can be very nice to relax like this and feel like a child of nature.

Beaches
The full attractions of Puerto Rico, like other island countries, are local beaches. Tourists especially love the beaches of the island of Vieques. They boast clean white sand and azure water. The most popular is Sun Bay. Everything here is equipped for the convenience of visitors: there is parking, showers, garbage cans. On the beaches of Red Beach and Blue Beach, surfing and diving are practiced. There is also Secret Beach — there are usually few people here, and you can relax calmly.

Kamuy Caves
Kamuy Caves is the third largest cave system in the world. They were officially opened only in 1958, although they were visited much earlier by local Indians. On the territory of the caves there is a picturesque underground river Kamuy — rare fish are found in it, preserved only here, underground. At the moment, 228 caves have been discovered, but scientists suggest that their number can reach 800. Interesting night tours are held in the caves every week.

Alicia Sotomayor Gallery
Art lovers can visit the Alicia Sotomayor Gallery in San Juan. Here are the best works of this artist. Her style is characterized by the use of only «warm» and bright colors.

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