El Morro

Top choice fort in San Juan & Around

Image by Tetra Images Getty Images

The star of Old San Juan, El Morro juts aggressively over bold headlands, glowering across the Atlantic at would-be conquerors. The 140ft walls (some up to 15ft thick) date back to 1539 and El Morro is said to be the oldest Spanish fort in the New World. Displays document the construction of the fort, which took almost 200 years, as well as El Morro’s role in rebuffing attacks on the island by the British, the Dutch and, later, the US military. A short film providing a historical overview of the fort is screened every 15 minutes.

The gray, castellated lighthouse on the 6th floor has been in operation since 1846 (although the tower itself dates from 1906), making it the island’s oldest light station still in use today. After suffering severe damage during a US navy bombardment during the 1898 Spanish-American War, the original lighthouse was rebuilt with unique Spanish-Moorish features, a style that blends in surprisingly well with the rest of the fort.

At a minimum, try to make the climb up the ramparts to the sentries’ walks along the Santa Barbara Bastion and Austria Half-Bastion for the views of the sea, the bay, Old San Juan, modern San Juan, El Yunque and the island’s mountainous spine. Steep walks and countless staircases can make wearing flip flops tough – consider wearing a more comfortable shoe instead.

The National Park Service maintains this fort and the small military museum on the premises. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983.

On weekends, the fields leading up to the fort are alive with picnickers, lovers and kite flyers. The scene becomes a kind of impromptu festival with food vendors’ carts on the perimeter.