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History with a View: San Juan's spectacular Castillo El Morro

October 30, 2014

One thing I discovered in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is that there’s no shortage of historic sites. This walled colonial city brims with colorfully painted homes, striking churches, and charming streets lined in ancient blue bricks. Wander to the end of a lane, and you may be rewarded with a spectacular view of blue ocean and wide, uninterrupted sky. 

 

I was lucky enough to take a walking tour with a warm, funny Puerto Rican guide. She showed our group the major buildings and regaled us with stories and odd anecdotes. One of the most magnificent destinations – which the tour did not have time to explore – was an imposing stony citadel called El Morro. So, the next day, the Island Runaways, a.k.a., Zickie and I, set out to discover this signature spot in Old San Juan.

Our take, after the experience: even if you have zero interest in military history, it’s worth spending the time to visit Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. (If you love military history on the other hand, this is your kind of place!) Today part of the U.S. National Park Services, El Morro was originally built to defend the entrance to San Juan Bay.

Begun in 1539, the construction of this impressive structure took centuries; subsequent designers and planners added to its strength, at one point increasing its outer walls from 6 to 18 feet thick. The sheer immensity of El Morro almost took my breath away, but even more stunning were the views, looking out 140 feet above the sea.

Sweeping green lawns lead you up to the historic fortress.

Once inside overlooking the bay, you gaze out on gorgeous, marine-blue water, where Sir Francis Drake once ordered an attack on San Juan. (This was in 1595, at the “Battle of San Juan.” Drake and his men were resoundingly defeated, by the way.)

“Garitas,” where sentries once stood watch in protected towers, reminded Zickie and me that at one time, this serene and beautiful place was filled with soldiers and cannon, all on alert in case of invasion.

You’ll also notice the distinctive El Morro Lighthouse, first erected in 1843. At every turn, in every corner, is the chance to take an amazing photograph. It’s literally difficult to get a bad shot, so photogenic is this place.

 

I found it impossible to see all of Old San Juan’s sights in the time we had, which gives me a good excuse to return to this ancient city of the Americas. But we were both glad we decided to see the citadel up close, rather than just from a distance. For sheer beauty and a sense of history, the Island Runaways recommend you spend at least an hour soaking in the atmosphere and gorgeous vistas from Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

 

All photos by Zickie Allgrove, except photo #2 by Roger Wollstadt, Flickr.

 

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