Castillo San Felipe Del Morro In Old San Juan – All You Need To Know

Castillo San Felipe Del Morro is Puerto Rico’s most famous landmark.

For almost 500 years, El Morro, with its 40 feet tall and more than 20 feet wide walls, defended the island from the attacks of enemies.

For decades I have been taking friends, family members, and tourists to El Morro and giving them a historically accurate tour.

In this article, I will cover everything that you need to know about Castillo San Felipe Del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico:

What is the history of Castillo San Felipe Del Morro?
What is the Castle of San Felipe del Morro today?
Why is Castillo San Felipe Del Morro famous?
Where is it located?
How long does it take to tour Castillo San Felipe del Morro?
Should you visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro?

 

What is the history of Castillo San Felipe Del Morro?

Christopher Columbus “discovered” and claimed for the Spanish Crown the Island of Boriken on November 16, 1493.

He named the island San Juan Bautista in honor of John The Baptist.

In 1508 Juan Ponce de Leon (Christopher Columbus’s lieutenant) founded the city of Caparra to serve as San Juan’s Island center of government.

image of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
The Spanish started construction of El Morro in 1539 and finished it in 1790.

One year later, Ponce de Leon moved the settlement to an islet on the island’s northeast shore (now Old San Juan) and named the city Puerto Rico (Rich Port).

Around 1522 the names were interchanged. They renamed the Island Puerto Rico and the capital San Juan.

Between 1533 and 1540, the Spanish built La Fortaleza, the first fortification in the San Juan harbor. Now, La Fortaleza is the oldest Governor’s Mansion in the Americas. 

Because of Puerto Rico’s privileged position, the world powers started calling the island “The Gateway to The New World.”

image of a map showing Puerto Rico's privileged and strategic location in The Caribbean
Puerto Rico was located very strategically for countries looking to colonize the Caribbean.

They said that whoever controlled the island of Puerto Rico would control the ocean routes from the Americas to Europe. Thus, the Spanish Crown knew they needed to defend Puerto Rico to keep their control of “The New World.”

The Spanish started construction of El Morro in 1539 and finished it in 1790. During those 250 years, El Morro expanded from a cannon mounted on a promontory to a six-level fortress.

El Morro defended Puerto Rico from several historical attacks. Here is a review of the most critical attacks Castillo San Felipe Del Morro faced.

In 1595 the famous English Privateer Sir Frances Drake was defeated when he attacked El Morro with 27 vessels and more than 2,500 men. 

But the English did not give up; in 1598, George Clifford, The Earl Of Cumberland, attacked San Juan.

Clifford learned from Drake’s mistake and took a different approach. 

The Earl of Cumberland disembarked outside the walls of El Morro, attacked by land, and succeeded. 

Puerto Rico was now under English control.

That British control lasted a short time; it only lasted almost two months. 

image of George Clifford Earl of Cumberland
George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland.

Dysentery killed most English troops, and the ones who survived abandoned the island.

In 1625 The Dutch fought for their independence from Spain.

The Netherlands took the fight to the new world and attacked San Juan.

After 21 days of siege and battles, The Dutch started to run out of ammunition and supplies.

Unable to make The Spanish surrender El Morro The Dutch left, but as a “parting gift,” they burned down the city of San Juan.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Spanish Crown commissioned two Irishmen, Field Marshall Alexander O’Reilly, and Chief Engineer Colonel Thomas O’Daly, to reform the fortifications of Puerto Rico, including Castillo San Felipe Del Morro.

O’ Daly did the last major construction and renovation of El Morro just in time to defend Puerto Rico from the 1797 attack of The British.

On April 17, 1797, General Sir Ralph Abercromby came to San Juan with a 68-vessel fleet and 7,000 men to take over Puerto Rico.

The Spanish defeated Abrecombrie and protected the island.

One Hundred years later, in the Spanish-American war, the once unconquerable six-level fortress fell to the more sophisticated war technology of the United States.

A defeated, covered in smoke Castillo San Felipe del Moro was testimony that history had changed.

image showing The New York Times reports that the USA flag now waves in Puerto Rico
In 1898, The New York Times reports that the US flag now waves in Puerto Rico.

Spain was no longer the ruler of the Americas, and The United States became a major World Power.

Spain gave Puerto Rico as spoils of war to the United States.

The American government used El Morro in the two World Wars.

The US Military, named El Morro Fort Brooke, added a Bunker, a naval observation post, and an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

After defending the island for the Spanish Crown for over 400 years, El Morro became part of the United States Military.

The old fortress that fended wooden ships’ attacks was now defending the United States against potential German submarine and air attacks.

US Congress retired El Morro from service.

In 1961 El Morro became part of the San Juan Historic Site of the United States Park Service.

The UNESCO designated Castillo San Felipe Del Morro as a World Heritage landmark in 1983.

 

What is the Castle of San Felipe del Morro today?

Today, El Morro is the most visited tourist attraction in Puerto Rico.

The fortress welcomes cruise ships as they enter the San Juan Harbor.

image of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Castillo San Felipe del Morro’s located as viewed from San Juan.

If you come to Puerto Rico on a cruise ship, be on deck to witness the beauty of El Morro from the sea.

The United States Park Service has done an extraordinary job preserving El Morro.

El Morro is part of the San Juan Historic Site of the United States Park Service, along with San Cristobal Fort and other Old San Juan landmarks.

 

Why is Castillo San Felipe Del Morro famous?

Castillo San Felipe Del Morro is famous for various reasons.

It is a well-preserved historical site, has withstood the test of time (El Morro is almost 500 years old), and is a family-friendly tourist attraction.

image of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Explore the 500 year old grounds of El Morro on a sunny day and you will find many other visitors flying kites.

You can fly kites in the yard in front of El Morro. The view is simply breathtaking. 

image of La Garita del Diablo
Garitas are the famous guard stands you will see surrounding El Morro.

The legend of “La Garita del Diablo,” The Devil’s Sentry Box, said Spanish soldiers disappeared from that “Garita.” 

El Morro is also a “Time Machine,” you will travel to colonial times and immerse yourself in a time when real pirates of the Caribbean threatened Puerto Rico’s safety. 

El Morro is also a testimony of Puerto Rican bravery.

Criollos (people of Spanish descent born on or living in Puerto Rico) used El Morro to defend the island from its attackers.

Interesting Fact: The patch that identifies The United States Army’s Puerto Rico National Guard is a “Garita” (a Sentry Box at El Morro).

I wore that patch with pride!

 

Where is it located?

You will find Castillo San Felipe Del Moro at 501 Calle Norzagaray in Old San Juan.

El Morro overlooks San Juan Bay.

image of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
The aerial view of El Morro showcases the intricate walls built around the fortress to protect the city from invasion.

Provided you stay within Old San Juan, you can walk to El Morro. 

The City Of San Juan has a Trolley that will leave you at the entrance of El Morro free of charge.

From other areas of San Juan, you can drive yourself or take a taxi or an Uber to The Fortress.

If you go to El Morro driving, there is an underground parking area at the end of Norzagaray Street. You can walk to El Morro, about 5 to 10 minutes from that parking area.

Below is a Google Map that shows the location of El Morro:

 

How long does it take to tour Castillo San Felipe del Morro?

image of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
The grassy grounds of El Morro are perfect for families and friend groups that want to relax after a long day walking around Old San Juan.

It takes three to four hours to tour Castillo San Felipe Del Morro. The fortress has six levels connected by ramps and stairs.

You can see the kitchen, soldiers living quarters, and a chapel in honor of Our Lady Of The Navigators.

Go to the cannon area and pretend you are defending the island from invaders. 

Look at the harbor area from a Sentry Box, or watch the informative movie at the visitor’s center.

Park Rangers offer a guided El Morro tour.

But you don’t need a tour; you can get plenty of information on the several interpretive plaques and boards in English and Spanish all over El Morro.

There are restrooms at the entrance of El Morro.

They have a gift shop/bookstore where you can buy souvenirs, drinks, and snacks.

There is also a water fountain where you can refill your water bottles to stay hydrated.

 

Should you visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro?

Absolutely!

image of a tourist in El Morro
There are many photo opportunities around El Morro, and enough things to do to spend the better part of a day here.

El Morro is fun and instructive, and the views are amazing.

If you like history, architecture, or Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you will love El Morro.

Be aware that there are many stairs, ramps, and tunnels.

Wear comfortable shoes and adequate clothing, and stay hydrated.

People with mobility problems can still visit the central courtyard and other areas on the level, including the theater and the bookstore.

Check out Castillo San Felipe del Morro in the following video:

 

 

FAQ section

Do you need tickets for Castillo San Felipe?

Yes, you can buy tickets on the National Park Service website or at the gate in El Morro. El Morro gets crowded, and try to arrive early in the morning to avoid long lines.

How much does it cost to visit El Morro?

When writing this article, the admission fee for an adult is under $15; that fee covers both El Morro and the San Cristobal Fort, the largest Spanish fort in the Americas. Children 15 years and younger enter both fortresses for free, and if you are an active duty member of the armed forces, you are entitled to a free one-year pass to enter United States Park Service facilities.

 

Final thoughts

Castillo San Felipe Del Morro is one of the most famous landmarks in Puerto Rico.

It has almost 500 years of history, colonial architecture and an unsurpassed view of the San Juan Harbor.

No visit to Puerto Rico is complete without visiting El Morro. 

If you are looking for other activities, then check out our article 45 Best Things To Do In Puerto Rico

Article by

Carlos Cubero

Writer at PuertoRico.com. I was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. I’m passionate about Puerto Rican history and culture. I live on the west coast of Puerto Rico, and host an Airbnb for tourists. I also coordinate tours and concierge services for tourists. I authored “Eat Like A Local, Puerto Rico”, and have contributed to blogs and magazines with articles about discovering and enjoying what Puerto Rico has to offer.

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