Puerto Rico’s San Juan is a microcosm of the history of the Americas. First sighted by Europeans on Columbus’s second trip to the New World in 1493, the island became the gateway to Spain’s American empire. It was the easternmost island large enough to supply plentiful food and water to Spanish ships sailing from home to the Caribbean and beyond to the riches of Mexico and South America. San Juan remained Spain’s mightiest stronghold in the area for the next 350 years, only briefly occupied by the English in 1598 and by the Dutch in 1625, until Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession following the 1898 Spanish-American War.
The most striking evidence of San Juan’s history as a naval fortress is its most impressive structure: Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro. Named after Spanish king Phillip II – the same who is the namesake of the Philippines – El Morro was built to guard San Juan Bay against invading ships. The construction started in 1539 and lasted for two centuries, eventually expanding the structure to six levels of massive defense walls, casemates, and sentry boxes. The outer walls are 6 meters thick and protect the triangular structure jutting into the sea. If these walls could talk…My favorite – ok, everybody’s favorite – architectural element of El Morro are the elaborate sentry boxes or garitas. True to their mission, they still offer the best view of the horizon from various points along the wall, although these days cruise ships rather than enemy boats are the common sight. After the Dutch sacked San Juan in 1625, the Spanish decided to extend fortifications beyond El Morro by encircling the entire Old City with a wall, which was completed in 1650. In the northeastern part of San Juan the construction of another mighty fort, Castillo de San Cristóbal, began and lasted until in 1783. San Juan became a walled city. The only way to enter were five gates, with the San Juan Gate being the most important. This gate was named after San Juan Bautista – Saint John the Baptist. In fact that was initially the name of the whole island given to it by Columbus. The Latin inscription above the gate says “Benedictus qui venit in nomini Domini” – “Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord.” A nice 17th century version of a “Welcome” doormat =) Both El Morro and San Cristóbal withstood the test of time and continue to guard San Juan today the way they have for hundreds of years. Amazingly, most of the wall is still standing as well, with only southeastern part of it purposely destroyed by the Spanish authorities in the 1890s to allow for the expansion of the city. For me the best way to appreciate the charm of the old walled city was to walk along the elegant Paseo de la Princesa to the Raíces Fountain (celebrating Puerto Rico’s Taíno Indian, Spanish, and African heritage) and along the picturesque waterfront in the shadow of La Fortaleza – the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico dating back to the 16th century.
I found this great excerpt from a 1647 book by Father Diego de Torres Vargas, San Juan-born priest. The book, Descripción de la Ciudad e Isla de Puerto Rico was the first detailed description of the island and the city. In his view, San Juan, embraced by the sea and defended by the might of El Morro and the Governor’s La Fortaleza, was the most impressive sight not just in the Caribbean but could rival the splendor of viceroys of Peru and Mexico and the charm of Flanders. 365 years later, taking in the same vistas of turquoise seas and ancient walls, I totally agree.
“Ni la fuerza se hizo sino para defenderse de los indios, y despues ha quedado, como se hizo la de San Felipe del Morro, por casa de morada de los Gobernadores, y es de las mejores que hay en las Indias, aunque entre los palacios de los Virreyes del Perú y México, porque aunque en fábrica y aposentos puedan escederle, en el sitio
nunca podian igualarsele por estar en la bahia y entrada del puerto, en un brazo de mar, en la eminencia de unas peñas, colocada con tan
disposicion, que se compiten lo agradable y lo fuerte, porque también
tiene debajo de unos corredores que caen en el brazo del mar,
plataforma con artilleria, y puertos de un lado a otro, con viata de
arboledas y isletas como se podia pintar en el país mas vistoso de