A visit to the old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, brings one back to a rich period of old Spanish charm. Visitors can easily stroll the narrow brick paved streets and admire historical buildings, share the public squares with locals, shop in quaint restored buildings or treat yourself to delicious local cuisine in its many restaurants.
For passengers entering the Old San Juan harbour by cruise ship, one of the first sights to see is Fort El Morro at the entrance of the port and the majestic view of Fort Castillo San Cristobal to the east. You can easily walk or take a free Hop-on-Hop-Off bus from the cruise terminal in downtown San Juan to either Fort.
Specifically, Fort Castillo, San Cristobal is recognised for its military significance as one of the largest European forts in the Americas. It’s built along the top of a hill and dominates over a sprawling 27 acres for protection against land attacks. The iconic Fort El Morro guarded the harbour entrance against enemy ships.
Historical Fort Castillo San Cristobal
At150 feet above sea level, Castillo de San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher’s Castle) is a massive structure that takes up most of the northeast edge of the city of Old San Juan. Construction began in 1634 and completed in 1790. However, the bulk of the work occurred over a 20-year period (1765-1785) that was led by an Irish engineer Thomas O’Daly, who didn’t want his hated English rivals to take over the Fort.
The Fort was a much-needed addition to the city’s defences which and in 1797, the fort helped repel a British invasion.
From an architectural basis, both San Cristóbal and El Morro are castles, not forts, though they served an incredibly crucial military role. Following a model known as “defence-in-depth”, San Cristobal is designed in several layers, each walled and stoutly fortified to slow an enemy not once, but several times.
A tour of Fort San Cristobal today will show you its unusual but effective layout. Journey into history along long candlelit tunnels and enter into the soldiers’ living quarters and imagine life behind the walls. Take in the sight of numerous restored cannons and admire the scenic panoramic sites at the top of the fort.
The Fort had seen many years of peace, but it has also seen its share of battles and is known to have fired the first Spanish shot of the Spanish-American War. Through it all, its construction has survived the tests of time and war. In WWII, the U.S. added fortifications to its outer walls. However, they also added military bunkers and concrete pillboxes to the fort, which detract from the original structure. The US Army moved out of the Fort Castillo San Cristobal in the 1960s and was later acquired and restored to its historical presence by the U.S. National Park Service. UNESCO recognised both Forts as World Heritage Sites in 1983.
Fort Castillo Visitor Information
A visit to Fort Castillo San Cristóbal affords you the opportunity to walk upon the parapet if you can gaze over the barrel of a cannon. You can step inside a Garita, or sentry box, and look out over the water or see Old San Juan spread out before you.
The area combining El Morro and San Cristobal is known as the San Juan National Historic Site and under the care with National Park Service. The affordable $5 adult or $3 children admission allows one to visit both forts. Included is the option of exploring the site yourself or going on a free guided tour with one of the National Parks rangers to learn more in-depth information about the history of the two Old San Juan Forts.
Tip: If you have the Annual or Senior’s U.S. National Park Pass admission is free.
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