The quarter mile gravel path that leads to El Morro or ‘promontory’ is easily accessible from Norzagaray Street. Named in honor of King Phillip II of Spain, the fortress was built in San Juan’s northernmost rocky headland to prevent attacks from the Atlantic. It was designated a National Historic Site and part of a World Heritage Site in 1983 by the United Nations, one of only 12 sites in the United States to be recognized as such. Construction began on El Morro around 1540, making it the second oldest of San Juan’s defense system.
The initial plan consisted of a two-level structure with an arched tower, a battery platform and four embrasures for cannons in close proximity to the sea. It did not acquire its present appearance until more than two centuries later, when its four upper levels were completed. El Morro’s majestic walls rise up to 140 feet above sea level and are up to 25 feet thick. They gave the fortress an extraordinary degree of protection and made it possible to safely house the city’s residents and its troops in times of attack. Enormous fresh water cisterns would aid in this purpose as well as the subterranean galleries that lead to the fort’s more vulnerable positions, making it easier to deflect attacks.
El Morro’s main battery is named after Santa Barbara, patron saint of people in danger of fire and explosions. From here mortars and cannons were fired at invaders, each manned by six soldiers and averaging a mile in fire range. El Morro’s tremendous artillery was vital in defending the city against Sir Francis Drake in 1595, the Dutch invasion in 1625, and General Ralph Abercrombie’s British Armada in 1797. Within its walls, notorious Puerto Rican pirate, Roberto Cofresí, was jailed and executed in the early 19th century. The fields that surround San Felipe del Morro are a perfect site for flying kites and enjoying picnics.