Explore the Forts
From the piers in Old San Juan, it’s a quick walk to Paseo de la Princesa, a peaceful tree-lined promenade that overlooks San Juan Bay. Here street vendors proffer goods to passersby. This is a great place to grab a quick snack; try a piragua, a refreshing snow-cone-like treat. The Puerto Rico Tourism Board’s headquarters are housed in La Princesa, the city’s former prison building, which intersects the walkway.
Follow El Paseo along the city wall to the San Juan Gate, which marks the official entrance into the old city. Built in the 1700s, this gate is the last remaining of the six heavy wooden doors that used to close at sundown to protect the city from invaders.
The wall is only one part of Old San Juan’s massive military-defense system. The grandiose fortress, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), is situated on a rocky peak on the far western coast of Old San Juan, jutting out imposingly over San Juan Bay from the mainland. Although its foundation was laid in 1539, the fortification was not considered complete until 1787.
Throughout its storied history, the fort fell only once: to the British Earl of Cumberland in 1598. After Cumberland withdrew his forces, the Spanish improved the site, adding a maze of tunnels, dungeons, and barracks. El Morro evolved into a military masterpiece with 60-foot-high, 18-foot-thick walls and carefully planned steps and ramps for moving men and artillery. By the end of the 18th century, the 70-acre, six-level complex rose 150 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and housed more than 400 cannons.
At the edge of El Morro is the last and largest building constructed by the Spaniards in the New World. It served as barracks for the Spanish militia and their families in the late 19th century. Facilities included warehouses, kitchens, dining rooms, prison cells, and stables. Now it houses the Museum of the Americas, which features changing exhibitions and an admirable collection of artifacts.
Whereas El Morro was designed to protect San Juan from enemy invasions by sea, its partner in defense, the 27-acre Castillo de San Cristóbal, was designed to protect the city from attacks on land.
Construction of San Cristóbal began in 1634 and was finished in 1790. The fort contained five independent units, each connected by a moat and a tunnel. Impressive in design, each unit was fully self-sufficient in the event that any of the others were to fall. The immense fortress is located on the northeastern edge of the city and boasts a half-mile passageway of strategic walls and tunnels that connect it with El Morro.
Although its name translates to “The Fortress,” La Fortaleza is the least fortress-looking of all the sites. Construction began in 1533, but because La Fortaleza did not have any cannons or permanent troops, the building was almost useless for military purposes. Even if it had housed weapons, La Fortaleza was doomed because it had no command over San Juan Bay. A Spanish historian who saw La Fortaleza when first constructed was known for saying, “Only blind men could have chosen such a site for a fort.” He suggested that instead the fort should have been built on el morro, a headland at the harbor entrance that stood at the top of a steep slope. Within two years, Spain approved funds to build El Morro. From 1640 onward, La Fortaleza was used as the official governor’s residence. In 1846, its facade was redesigned to look as it does today. Over the years, it has been home to approximately 170 governors, and it remains the residence and offices of Puerto Rico’s governor. The large blue structure is currently the oldest governor’s mansion in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Not all of San Juan’s architectural masterpieces are fortresses. The San Juan Cathedral is the second-oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The magnificent structure seen today is the result of renovations that were made in 1917. Inside is the marble tomb of San Juan’s first governor, Ponce de León.
One block west of the cathedral is Puerto Rico’s very own White House, Casa Blanca. Construction began in 1521, and it was meant to be the home of Ponce de León. He never lived there, but his descendants did for more than 250 years. These days, Casa Blanca is a museum that displays artifacts from the island’s early history.
Nearby in San José Plaza sits the whitewashed San José Church, an excellent example of 16th-century Spanish-Gothic architecture. The church’s construction began in 1523, and it was originally called the Church and Monastery of St. Thomas Aquinas as it was built by Dominican friars. It was also the family church of Ponce de León’s descendants. Ponce de León himself was buried here for 300 years until his body was moved to the San Juan Cathedral in 1913. Nearby is Plaza del Quinto Centenario (Quincentennial Square), which boasts a 40-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus—a terrific photo opportunity. The plaza opened in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
Fall in love with the beauty of Puerto Rico’s capital as you tour historical landmarks in Old and New San Juan. Then, enjoy some free time to shop for jewelry and memorable souvenirs.
Keep your eyes peeled for exotic flora and fauna as you ride your personal ATV along a guided trail through farmlands into the Carabali Rainforest.
Discover Puerto Rico’s unique mix of cultures that includes Taino Indians, Spanish explorers, and African slaves, each with their own music, food, dances, and traditions.
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