• Soldiers marching to the entrance of Castillo San Felipe del Morro

    San Juan

    National Historic Site Puerto Rico

Frequently Asked Questions

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Cross of Burgundy
 

What is the White flag with the jagged red cross?

At El Morro and San Cristobal alongside the U.S. and Puerto Rican Flags flies the "Cross of Burgundy," a Spanish military flag used from the 16th to the 18th century to identify warships, forts, and regiments of troops loyal to the king of Spain. When the great forts were built, this was the flag flown.

Where are the nearest bathrooms?

There are bathrooms in both forts on the same levels as the main entrances. At El Morro go into the plaza, turn slightly left and look for the water fountain. At San Cristóbal, enter the main gate, turn right; pass the two round structures which protect the wells, and the restrooms are on the right hand side.

Why were the forts of Old San Juan built?

San Juan Bay was a sheltered harbor that had high political and military value in the days of sailing ships. The easiest course to cross the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas was to go south to the coast of Africa; place your ship in the dependable trade winds and sail due west to the Caribbean. The trade winds, and wealth of the Caribbean islands in colonial times, made this harbor a target. El Morro was built to defend against sea attackers; later San Cristóbal was built to protect against attack on San Juan by land.

When were these forts built?

Spanish troops built forts in San Juan beginning in 1539 with a tower at El Morro and La Fortaleza. Most of the walls we see in the forts today were added later, in a period of tremendous construction from the 1760's-1780's.

What does the name "El Morro" mean?

This term means promontory or headland. It can also mean the forehead.

Where is San Juan Hill?

The famous hill which Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charged up during the Spanish American War is not in Puerto Rico. It is in eastern Cuba, 500 miles away.

Where these forts ever in a battle?

There is a history of 5 battles: the attack on El Morro in 1595 by Sir Francis Drake; a second attack on El Morro and the city by Sir George Clifford, another Englishman, in 1598; a siege of El Morro by the Dutch in 1625; an invasion by 7,000 British troops and 64 warships under the command of General Ralph Abercromby in 1797; and the bombardment of San Juan by the United States Navy on May 12, 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

Has El Morro ever been captured by an enemy?

English troops captured El Morro in the 1598 battle. After occupying the fort and city for six weeks, an epidemic of dysentery killed so many men that they withdrew.

How much time did it take to construct the forts?

This is difficult to answer. There was constant modification for centuries (El Morro 248 years, San Cristóbal 150 years), however most work on El Morro occured over a 50 year span and most work on San Cristobal occurred over a 25 year period.

Which fort is older, El Morro or San Cristóbal?

El Morro has a turret encased in the Santa Bárbara Bastion which was constructed in 1539. The oldest segment of San Cristóbal was built in 1634. However, the majority of the outside walls we see today in both forts are the same age - dating from the mid-18th century.

Which fort is larger, El Morro or San Cristóbal?

Although El Morro is more famous, it is such smaller than San Cristóbal. San Cristóbal covers 27 acres of ground (110,000 square meters) and is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.

Is there a dungeon?

Unlike the classic Hollywood movie scene, there was no dungeon specifically built for keeping prisoners. There are many underground chambers and vaulted rooms in both forts. Several rooms above and some below ground levels were used to lock up prisoners at one time or another. In San Cristóbal there is a room branching off a tunnel which led from the main plaza to the outworks which has for many years been labeled a dungeon. In it ships are drawn on a wall, which are the subject of a legend about the mutineers who seized control of the cannon of the fort in 1855 and held San Juan for ransom.

Are there secret tunnels that connect the forts with each other, La Fortaleza, the Capitol, the City Hall, or other famous buildings in Old San Juan?

This is one of the most persistent myths Park Staff hear daily. There are many tunnels in both El Morro and San Cristóbal, but none were "secret" and none went into the city. There is no tunnel connecting the two forts.

Were the moats of El Morro and San Cristóbal full of water?

The moats of both forts were designed to be dry. These barriers helped to protect the bottom of the fortress walls from enemy cannon fire by lessening the amount of wall open to fire. If an enemy did charge the forts (which never happened), the moats were a difficult obstacle at the end of the charge to climb down and then climb up the fort walls themselves.

How far is El Morro from San Cristóbal?

Just a little under a mile. To walk from one fort to the other will take 15 to 20 minutes.

How big are the walls of the forts and the city walls?

El Morro rises over 140 feet above the sea and has walls from 18 to 25 feet thick in places. San Cristóbal is over 150 feet straight up from the Atlantic shoreline. The city walls which join the two fortresses and once encircled the entire colonial capital city are 3.4 miles long. The fortresses and the walls, together with La Fortaleza, are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, one of only 12 U.S. National Park units to be so designated.

Who was Santa Bárbara?

The chapel in the central plaza of San Cristóbal and the main cannon platform on the 3rd level of El Morro both bear this name. She was an early Christian saint of the 3rd century A.D. from Asia Minor, and the patron saint of any person in danger of fire or explosion. Cannoneers prayed for her intercession before working with these dangerous big guns.

How many cannons were there in the forts?

Over 450 cannons were mounted in the forts of Old San Juan.

How far could the cannon at El Morro shoot?

The size of the cannon determines the range of the shot. The average cannon found in El Morro 200 years ago could shoot a cannon ball a mile covering all of the areas between the forts and across the Bay. Some of the 18 pounders which shot a solid cannonball about 6 inches in diameter had a 3 mile maximum range. This maximum range for the smooth bore cannon is the origin for the 3 miles offshore international limit.

How many soldiers were there living inside the forts?

An average number for both forts combined would be 400-450 troops, but there were as many as 6,000 during the 1797 attack by the British.

Who built the forts? Were they slaves?

Work crews of civilian craftsmen, off duty soldiers, prisoners, and slaves were used in the construction of these forts. About 400 were busy in the peak construction times of the 1770's and 1780's, after King Carlos III had given the orders to make San Juan "a Defense of the First Order."

What caused the Spanish-American War in 1898?

Cuban insurgents revolted against Spanish rule, fighting a long, bitter guerrilla war. The United States was drawn into the fighting on the Cuban side after the mysterious explosion of the battleship "Maine" in Havana harbor. The last overseas colonies of Spain were captured by American troops in less than six months; Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and Guam and the Philippine islands in the Pacific.

Is it safe to drink the water in Puerto Rico?

Water quality in San Juan is maintained at stateside levels. The same environmental standards and laws apply here as on the mainland United States.

Is it safe to walk between the forts and go down into the Cemetery?

The sidewalk along walls between San Cristobal and San Felipe del Morro provides an enjoyable, safe and interesting view of the fortifications and Old San Juan. The Cemetery Maria Magdalena de Pazzis located outside the historic walls provides an interesting, safe and informative visit to Old San Juan's past.

Is El Morro closed to the public?

The historic grounds of Castillo de San Felipe del Morro have recently been restored to the way they looked in the 18th and 19th centuries. Parking areas and modern roads were removed in 1992, and vehicles are not permitted on the grounds, except for a tram service (provided by the Municipality of San Juan), emergency medical or police cars. Castillo San Felipe del Morro is usually open to visitors every day of the year, except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. For your visit to El Morro allow an extra 5-10 minutes walk to the fort from the underground parking area at the end of the Norzagaray Street at the Fifth Centennial Plaza or use the tram service that is available at marked stops along Old San Juan streets.

Did You Know?

Luis Cora, Mason, applying material to historic Garita

San Juan NHS employees use materials (lime, sand and brick) used by the Spanish when doing preservation work.