By: Donna Rama
On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I had the opportunity to visit the oldest city under a United States flag and one of the most vibrant cities in the Caribbean, La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city) of Old San Juan. Old San Juan is a small, colorful and delightfully walkable neighborhood. Its narrow streets are cobbled with bluish glassy stones that were used as ballast on 18th century ships traveling to and from the Indies. Old San Juan is dominated by Spanish colonial-style architecture from the 16th through 18th centuries and two forts: El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal.
Covering 27 acres and including five bastions, San Cristobal is the bigger fort. It was built by Spain beginning in 1634 and was completed in 1771. The other fort is Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, the Castle of St. Philip of the Headland. It was also built by the Spanish to protect San Juan and is known locally as El Morro.
El Morro was built from 1539 to 1786. The fort and the grounds around it cover 74 acres. The six level structure stands 140’ above the bay and is composed of 16’ thick sandstone walls. Circular sentry posts called garitas adorn the fort. These sentry posts have become a symbol of Puerto Rico and I observed various versions of them on license plates. Upon arriving at El Morro, I immediately noticed the New England-style lighthouse at the top. This oddly out of place structure was added in 1908.
Both forts feature ramparts, gunrooms, dungeons, vaulted rooms, storerooms, barracks, ramps, tunnels, courtrooms, chapels, along with great views of San Juan and the coastline. Both are designated U.N. Heritage sites and receive more than two million visitors annually.
As massive and formidable as these forts were, and even though more fortifications were built to guard the San Juan harbor, it was not enough. Gold and silver from Mexico and Peru was flowing into San Juan, and, the Old City was strategically located near the major routes into the Caribbean. So, in 1630, construction began on La Muralla, a massive wall that would would eventually surround the city to protect it from foreign invaders, pirates and any other enemy attacks. Since almost all of the native Indians were dead in the 1600s, most of the wall was built by African slaves. The wall is 60’ feet tall in places and as thick as 45’ at its base. La Muralla is composed of two sandstone block walls that are filled with sand, limestone and mortar. When the wall was finally completed 150 years later, it extended nearly 3.5 miles.
Of course, there had to be ways to enter through the city’s walls. I walked through the red-painted, heavy, wooden doors of the San Juan Gate, the only surviving original town gate. Built in 1520, this gate provided access to the wealthy and the Spanish dignitaries disembarking from ships. Less prominent visitors used one of the other five gates that are no longer in existence.
Visiting San Juan was a wonderful experience. The beaches are breathtaking, the food is delicious, the night life is lively, the locals are friendly and the old city is elegantly beautiful. To me however, the formidable medieval walls around Old San Juan were the most awe-inspiring sight. The view from the promenade known as the Paseo de la Princesa, just past the San Juan gate, is amazing. From this vantage point, I could truly sense the history and the sheer enormity of the undertaking behind these imposing fortifications.