Protecting the rich port – Two Spanish forts in Old San Juan

“Puerto Rico was the first major island with fresh water that the ships encountered as they sailed west from Europe in the 1500s. The nation that controlled the harbor could protect their merchant ships and send warships out to control shipping to and from the Carribean.” (U.S. National Park Service signage)

Once the Spanish explorers found their “rich port,” they knew they would have to defend it.

On our second trip into Old San Juan, we visited two major forts, Fort San Cristóbal and “El Morro.” (The city of Old San Juan is surrounded by a gated wall, which unfortunately we did not see or have time to explore.)

Fort San Cristóbal

Entrance to Fort San Cristóbal, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Begun in 1634 and now administered and maintained by the U.S. National Park Service,

A small portion of San Cristóbal’s complex system of connecting walls and outposts.

San Cristóbal is one of the largest fortresses ever built in the Americas by Spain. A huge complex system of tunnels and dry moats connects the center of the fort to its “outworks” over a 27-acre site. (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010)

A circular stone stairway inside San Cristóbal

San Cristóbal worked as a partner to the fort El Morro

View of El Morro in the distance, at the very edge of the land, from San Cristóbal

that was within view from the windows.

View of San Juan from San Cristóbal

El Morro, located at the entrance to the harbor, guarded the bay. San Cristóbal protected San Juan against attackers coming by land from across the island.

A view of San Juan through a circular window of San Cristóbal

Initially a Spanish fort, San Cristóbal became a U.S. Army fort in 1898.

Old Spanish military flag, Flag of Puerto Rico, and United States flag atop San Cristóbal

The fort includes features dating back as far as the 1760s when it was built by Spain. It includes modifications made by the U.S. Army that was here from 1898 through 1960. A grass-roofed building on one of the lower levels of the fort was built in 1942 as a WWII command post and now houses park visitor facilities and offices.

Entrance to one of the tunnels at San Cristóbal.

When it was built in 1769, this was a gunport for a canon aimed at the moat. In 1942 the U.S. Army converted it to a doorway leading to the longest of six hidden passages, or tunnels, in the fortress.

San Cristóbal tunnel

The tunnels, sometimes called galleries, were built to protect soldiers from enemy fire and to move large numbers of troops unseen.

Casements on the main level of San Cristóbal

The large rooms, or casements lining the walls on the interior of the fort are found in most Spanish fortifications.  The arched ceiling provides strength and added protection against attacks. These rooms were bombproof vaults designed with gun ports for cannon,

A reconstructed sleeping quarters for the soldiers

and functioned as troops’ quarters, kitchens, and latrines.

A fortified well

All the floors and roofs were designed to catch rain and drain it into five huge cisterns below ground. Together the cisterns held a total of 870,000 gallons of fresh water.

Well interior

To keep the drinking water supply clean, animals were banned from the fortresses and the cistern tanks were lined with limestone.

The fort also contained a chapel, probably added in the mid-1800s for daily mass. “Catholic faith permeated all of life in Spain’s colonies; church and state were inseparable. One of the goals of Spanish colonization was to spread Catholicism.” Park signage.

Unfortunately my photograph did not turn out well.

The dark gray sky in one of the earlier photos, resulted in a rainfall (thank you, Isaac) and we started moving a little more quickly, uncomfortable in our newly purchased clear plastic rain ponchos.

Watch towers at San Cristóbal

Regardless of Spain’s religious agenda, the fortifications were all built to defend San Juan

Watch tower at San Cristóbal

and its precious harbor.

El Morro:

In 1586 the English were raiding Spain’s treasure fleets from, and cities of, the New World. King Philip decided to fortify the Carribean at 10 key sites. One of those was the harbor of Old San Juan.

Entrance to Castillo de San Felipe del Morro – “El Morro”

Perched on a rock promotory at the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was begun in 1540 as a round tower that is still visible deep inside the lower levels of the castle. Yet another thing we missed.

Casements at El Morro seen from above

Walking up and down the steps of the many levels, along the walls, and through the tunnels of these forts was not a task for the faint of heart or weak of knees. We did not go “deep” inside this castle. Maybe next time.

Mark sporting a rain poncho at El Morro

The complex fortification seen today was finished by 1787 and was attacked repeatedly by the English and the Dutch.

Connected to San Cristobal by ancient tunnels,

El Morro is “an intriguing labyrinth of dungeons, barracks, vaults,

A ramp inside El Morro

lookouts, and ramps.” (Frommers)

A lighthouse was added to the fortress in 1846 to guide ships into and out of San Juan harbor. This is the fourth one, built in 1908 by the U.S. and replacing the one built in 1899 by the U.S. The first two built in 1846 and 1876 were built by Spain.

Canon tacks on main battery at El Morro

Santa Barbara Battery is the main gun deck. The deck that is visible today was completed about 1780.

“This main firing battery looks pretty much as it did when Spain built it in the mid-1700s, but it also features artillery emplacements from the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (1941-45).” (Park signage)

From here the fort could fire cannons at enemy ships in the harbor entrance or ocean. Shots were fired against the British in 1797 and against the Americans during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Cannon at El Morro

 An earlier version of the main gun deck fired cannon at English ships in 1595 and 1598, and Dutch ships in 1625.

Battery at El Morro

If you look closely at the left top corner of the higher wall, you will see a small black structure with horizontal slits. That is a coastal artillery observation post that the U.S. Army built here during WWII. The U.S. soldiers looked for German submarines or other warships.

Watch tower at El Morro

The Spanish were looking for English, French, or Dutch sails on wooden ships. (Park signage)

View of El Cañuelo from El Morro

Part of Spain’s defensive strategy to guard the port was to build a tiny sister fort San Juan de la Cruz, known as “El Cañuelo” across the bay from El Morro to keep ships from slipping in along the far side, and setting up a deadly cross-fire for enemies. If you click to enlarge the picture you might be able to see the stone structure at the end of the line of palm trees.

Exterior, seaward side of El Morro

The Spanish knew that “to control the harbor was to control the entrance to the Carribean and access to the riches of the New World. Spain defended San Juan and its harbor for almost 400 years.” (Park signage)


“The fortifications of Old San Juan, together have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.” Frommers

See more posts about Puerto Rico.

17 thoughts on “Protecting the rich port – Two Spanish forts in Old San Juan”

    1. I don’t know where you live, but it is a nice tropical destination with some interesting history that is not too far away from us in the midwest. I still have to post about the rainforest and the pelicans and then I’ll be done with Puerto Rico.

  1. Really cool photos, Christine. Isn’t it fun to explore places like this? So much history. There was something like this on the island of Caprara, in Italy. Another neat fort is in St. Augustine, Florida. Neither of them is as elaborate as this one though. It looks truly massive and awesome.

    1. We love it. I’ve never been to Caprara, but when I was young our family went to St. Augustine. Thanks for reminding me. It would be fun to go there again.

      Yes. The sheer size of the fort was formidable. Those Spaniards were serious about protecting their riches.

  2. So very interesting–and so many great photos & a good history lesson to boot. I must admit my attention was drawn to Mark and that he could–perhaps–walk all of those steps with his knees. It gives me hope that Barry will someday be able to walk like this as well.

    1. Mark’s walking is good. In fact, he is stronger than he ever was before, or at least recently before. (His teen-age, young-adult self could kick his butt, I’m pretty sure). It just takes time, but from what I’ve seen, Barry is doing quite well himself. What a big sigh of relief, yes?

      1. I am glad to hear that Mark’s strength is better than before. Barry is doing well, but he still feels challenges at times. Yes, joining you with that sigh.

  3. Loved Part II of your journey to Puerto Rico. You are quite the photographer. I keep hoping one day they will make a camera that will give perfect pictures but knowing me even the latest wouldn’t turn out very good. LOL But I still have hope. 🙂

    1. With the automatic cameras they have now, a lot of the guesswork is gone, and most people can take a good picture in terms of exposure. Just get a book or read a little on the internet about composition and you’ll be a lot happier with the pictures you shoot. I speak from experience. 🙂

    1. Thanks, William. I hope to get over to your blog soon. The trip (going on it, and then posting about it — these travel posts take a lot of time) really set me back. I hope you are doing okay.

  4. Not that you need yet another award, but an excess of riches is not really excessive. Personally, I have never met an award I didn’t like. Your site always reminds me of how I loved to travel … and all the places I’d still like to go someday. I just got another Lovely Blogger award and guess what? Now YOU have another one too! Drop by and pick up the prize: a nice little graphic to add to your post! I should rename this to the “You brighten my life” award … because you really do brighten my life. Thanks!


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