El Morro, Protector of Puerto Rico
One of the outstanding features of San Juan is the old Spanish citadel at El Morro. Located on an arrowhead-shaped promontory jutting across the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was perfectly placed to protect the harbor and city from foreign invasion. El Morro, known officially as Fort San Felipe del Morro (or El Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Spanish) was originally constructed in the early 16th century, shortly after Spanish colonizers settled at San Juan and noted the promontory’s advantageous position. Today, El Morro is one of the main features of the San Juan National Historic Site which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
In the early days of Spanish settlement and colonization of the New World, San Juan was an important administrative center whose capacious harbor was a staging area for treasure ships loaded with precious metals bound for Spain. As such, foreign naval forces as well as local pirates sought to capture San Juan from the sea, but were never successful thanks to El Morro. One of the earliest attempts took place in 1595, by the English adventurer Sir Francis Drake – known as “The King’s Pirate”. Drake’s ships were prevented from sailing into San Juan Bay through the use of a heavy chain strung from El Morro to her sister fort across the Bay, El Cañuelo.
The original phase of El Morro’s construction was completed in about 40 years, but the citadel was continually upgraded over the proceeding century in order to meet advances in ship design and military power. By the late 1700s, El Morro’s walls were an astounding 18 feet thick and featured inaccessible sentry posts known as Garitas that are today distinctive symbols of Old San Juan. Upon achieving victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the US military occupied El Morro until 1961. The entire complex was restored and renovated in 1992, becoming one of Puerto Rico’s most popular tourist attractions.