San Juan National Historic Site | CASTILLO SAN FELIPE DEL MORRO

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, part of San Juan National Historic Site

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, part of San Juan National Historic Site

Construction on the original Castillo San Felipe del Morro, commonly called El Morro, commenced in 1539, though very little of this fort remains today. The fort was modified and expanded multiple times over the next 250 years. Most of what stands today is largely from construction in the late 1700s.

El Morro was built to protect the entrance into San Juan Bay, and most of its guns were pointed seaward. Less concern was given to protecting the fort from a land invasion, and thus the rear was quite vulnerable. In fact, the fort was captured by the British in 1598. Luckily for the Spanish, an outbreak of dysentery two months later forced the English to abandon Puerto Rico, leaving them in control once again.

The British success at San Juan prompted the Spanish to enhance the landward side of the fort, and around 1602 construction began on what is known as the hornwork: two bastions, Ochoa on the east side (right of today’s main entrance) and Austria on the west side, and a wall that connected the two called a curtain. A written plan from 1625 shows these features completed, and the newly-designed fort was able to withstand a Dutch attack that same year, though the Dutch did burn the entire town of San Juan before leaving the island. As a result, the Spanish decided to expand its fortification of San Juan, and in 1634 construction began on both Castillo San Cristóbal and a wall around the city.

El Morro is open to visitors daily from 9 AM to 5 PM, except when closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. There is a fee to enter, and this is paid at the ticket desk inside the entrance to the fort (no cash). Tickets are valid for 24 hours, and if you previously visited Castillo San Cristóbal and got a ticket there within this time frame, it is good for entrance into El Morro as well (be sure to keep your ticket). Various National Park passes are also valid. See the National Park Service’s Fees and Passes web page for the current prices.

Entrance to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

Entrance to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

Fort tours are self-guided, and if the place is busy, you’ll be lucky to find a Ranger to ask a question other than at the ticket desk. There are wayside exhibits throughout the fort, but in truth, they don’t give much information. Everything is simplified, and visitors are left believing that the fort just magically appeared in the early 1500s as it stands today. Architectural features are described using generic terms and little mention is given to when the features were constructed. Of course, most people are perfectly happy walking around oblivious to the fort’s history, as they just want to see the fort and take photos. For those who want more details on the different architectural features of El Morro, see the following web pages here on National Park Planner.

Plaza de Armas (main plaza)

Hornwork and Cavalier

Lighthouse

Santa Barbara Bastion

Lower Plaza

Original Tower Ruins

Water Battery

The esplanade (grounds) of El Morro are huge, and they are very popular for picnicking (no fires or cooking), kite flying, and other family activities. There are no picnic tables, but visitors are welcome to sit on a blanket. There is no fee to enter the grounds, just the fort itself.

Kite flying on the esplanade of El Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

Kite flying on the esplanade of El Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

The small monument near the street commemorates the 1625 battle between the Dutch and Spanish at San Juan. Much of the fighting, which lasted a month, took place on this field. The monument was erected in 1925, the 300th anniversary of the battle.

Monument on the grounds of El Morro commemorating the 1625 battle between the Dutch and Spanish at San Juan

Monument on the grounds of El Morro commemorating the 1625 battle between the Dutch and Spanish at San Juan

Another historical building on the El Morro esplanade is the San Antonio Guardhouse. This structure first appeared on a map in 1897. In the 1920s when the United States Army occupied the fort, a golf course was built on the esplanade and the guardhouse served as the pro shop. In the late 1930s, the Army built a swimming pool here, and the guardhouse was turned into a pool house with a patio. The pool was filled in around 1971, and the building was then used as a restroom. It is now closed to the public.

San Antonio Guardhouse on the esplanade of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

San Antonio Guardhouse on the esplanade of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan National Historic Site

Though not part of San Juan National Historic Site, there is a large cemetery called Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery located just outside the city gate at the eastern end of the El Morro esplanade. You can look down from the wall into the cemetery, but the only entrance is via the city streets. I don’t know how to get there, but I know you can’t get there from the grounds of El Morro. The cemetery was established in 1863. It is open to the public from 7 AM to 3 PM.

Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

When done exploring the fort, consider taking the Paseo Del Morro National Recreational Trail, a wonderful paved path that runs right along the bay shore from El Morro to the San Juan Gate. From there you can venture into Old San Juan for shopping, dining, and sightseeing.

Paseo del Morro runs between El Morro and the San Juan Gate in Old San Juan

Paseo del Morro runs between El Morro and the San Juan Gate in Old San Juan

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Last updated on March 25, 2024
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