San Juan Forts
San Juan is best known for its forts. The most popular and visited of all San Juan forts is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, commonly known as El Morro Fort. Another major and significant San Juan fort is Castillo San Cristóbal, or San Cristobal Fort, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the western hemisphere.
Forts played an important role in the history of San Juan and Puerto Rico, as they served as a line of defense in protecting the island against enemy attacks.
As the Gateway to the Indies, San Juan underwent five enemy attacks in its history. This was due to the wealth of the Caribbean islands (and ocean currents and winds) that European ships would easily find their way to the San Juan harbor and would try to take it over. As a result, King Charles III, from Spain, ordered to make San Juan a “Defense of the First Order”, and a massive city wall and smaller forts were built in addition to the major fortifications of El Morro and San Cristobal.
The battles that took place in San Juan are below:
- 1595: Attack on El Morro by Englishman Sir Francis Drake
- 1598: Attack on El Morro and the city by Englishman Sir George Clifford
- 1625: Siege of El Morro by the Dutch
- 1797: Invasion by 7,000 British troops and over 60 warships under the command of General Ralph Abercromby
- 1898: Bombardment of San Juan by the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War
In 1949 the San Juan National Historical Site was established and included four of San Juan important fortifications. These are: Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro Fort), San Cristobal Fort, San Juan de la Cruz Fort, commonly known as Fortín El Cañuelo, and most of the massive city wall. Years later, in 1983, the United Nations declared the San Juan National Historical Site as a World Heritage Site.
Today, these important fortifications that once guarded the city attract visitors and locals every year and have become iconic features of San Juan, rich in cultural and historical value.
For Your Visit...
The must-see forts in your visit to San Juan are El Morro Fort and San Cristobal Fort. You would have to pay an admission fee for both of them, but it will be worth it.
Learn about El Morro Fort Learn about San Cristobal Fort
Below I provide an overview and a little bit of history about the city wall and other smaller forts in San Juan so you know what they are in case you run across them or in case you want to go and check them out. You won’t be able to access some of them, but pictures are always in the order!
Massive City Wall
San Juan is sometimes referred to as “The Walled City”. This is because most of the old city is surrounded by a massive wall approximately 18 to 25 feet thick and 3.4 miles long. This wall was constructed to complement the protection provided by the forts against attacks by the enemy, including pirates. Construction of the San Juan city wall took place between 1634 and 1638. But around 1759 it was thickened and raised to its current height.
The wall originally had five gates to the city, but in 1897 a segment of the wall, along with a section of San Cristobal Fort, was demolished to allow expansion and better access to the city. Today, only one gate remains. This remaining gate is known as La Puerta de San Juan and it is located at the end of Paseo La Princesa on the west side of the Old San Juan islet.
The San Juan city wall is part of the San Juan National Historic Site, and therefore, a World Heritage Site.
Fuerte San Juan de la Cruz (Fortín El Cañuelo)
San Juan de la Cruz Fort is the smallest fort of the San Juan National Historic Site. It is commonly known as Fortín (small fort) El Cañuelo because it is located in what used to be a small island and the fort was only accessible by boat. Today, the fort is accessible by land because rocks and dirt were added in an effort to connect it to the nearby islet of Isla de Cabras (Goats Island). Isla de Cabras is located to the west of Old San Juan and can be easily seen from El Morro and Paseo La Princesa.
The strategic location of El Cañuelo Fort allowed for the Spaniards to defend San Juan harbor entrance by creating crossfire. It also protected the mouth of the Bayamon River, which connected San Juan to other inland settlements.
El Cañuelo was originally a wooden structure, but it was destroyed in 1625 during the Dutch attack. A stone structure was later built to replace it, which is what still stands today.
Access to the interior of El Cañuelo Fort is not allowed. As a matter of fact, the entrance has been closed off. But you can still walk around it and enjoy the beautiful sight of El Morro and San Juan Bay from the fort and from other areas of Isla de Cabras.
I do not recommend going to the actual location of El Cañuelo because there is not much to do there other than reading the information sign from the National Park Service and taking pictures of the fort and San Juan Bay.
View of Old San Juan from Isla de Cabras
El Cañuelo Fort can be spotted from El Morro Fort
. I recommend you take binoculars with you so you don’t miss it. If you have a camera with a good zoom you could even take pictures of it.
Fortín de San Gerónimo
San Gerónimo Fort is another small fort of the line of defense of San Juan that was built to replace a small fortification that was destroyed during the 1598 attack led by George Clifford. It is located in the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood at the entrance of Condado Lagoon, just in front of the Caribe Hilton Hotel. That location allowed for the fort to protect the entrance to the lagoon and to block access to the San Juan islet from the east.
San Gerónimo Fort played an important role in defending San Juan during the attacks by the Englishmen and the Dutch. And even though it suffered a lot of damage in every attack, it was always restored and improved.
San Gerónimo Fort was listed on The National Register of Historic Places in 1983, but it has not been added to the San Juan National Historic Sites.
(Photo on the right: Courtesy of the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.)
Access to the fort has been restricted to the general public. However, the Caribe Hilton Hotel has hosted private events and gatherings in the fort and has allowed some guests to visit it, as the fort is located adjacent to the hotel grounds.
If you are staying in the Caribe Hilton Hotel, or if you are just touring the hotel grounds, you could probably get a chance of touring San Gerónimo Fort too. I don’t guarantee you that they will let you in, but you never know.
Pictures of this fort can be taken from the small beach at the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel or from Puente Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers Bridge), which is the bridge that connects Condado to Puerta de Tierra and Old San Juan.
Bateria del Escambron (Escambron Battery)
Escambron Battery is a small fortification that is located at the eastern tip of the grounds of El Escambrón Beach and Tercer Milenio Park. It is not as old as other San Juan fortifications because it was built at the end of the 18th century, but it was an integral part of the line of defense of San Juan and served as a shooting practice place for the Spanish army.
Escambron Battery is not part of the San Juan National Historic Sites.
Unlike San Gerónimo Fort, Escambron Battery can be easily accessed from the Tercer Milenio Park at El Escambrón Beach. There is no charge to visit the fort but there is a parking fee for the beach and the Tercer Milenio Park.
I do not recommend that you go to the Tercer Milenio Park just to visit this fort because it is pretty small and there is not much to it. However, if that is what you want to do, you could park by the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park across the street, cross the bridge and walk straight to the fort. This way you avoid having to pay for parking. The only thing is that it would be a longer walk.
From the location of Escambron Battery you can take pictures of the hotels in Puerta de Tierra as well as the Condado and Ocean Park shorelines. So if you decide to spend a couple of hours at the beach or to just relax at the Tercer Milenio Park facilities, don’t forget to explore this small fortification.
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