My sister and I have always had an innate sense of curiosity when it comes to sites and monuments protected by the National Park Service, so when our tour guide through Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, walked right past El Morro, we veered off from the group and headed for the fort.
The sun beat down on our shoulders and a warm but humid breeze blew off of the sea as we walked down the sidewalk to El Morro. Set out on a far point of land and surrounded by water on three sides, the fort was clearly built with defense in mind, but today it offers picturesque views of the islands dotting the ocean and a sweeping view of the coastline of San Juan. Children flew kites along the sprawling lawn and young couples lounged on blankets spread on the grass.
It was hard to believe that El Morro had ever been anything but peaceful and beautiful, a striking backdrop on an afternoon in the Caribbean.
El Morro itself was fairly crowded. I gathered from the large groups of people that this was a popular onshore excursion for cruise passengers and organized tour groups, so as soon as we picked up the self-guided tour map, we split from the crowds.
The fort was built in 1539-1540 and is basically a large triangle that covers this tip of land on the island. The six-tiered structure is made up of a dizzying array of layers connected by ramps, tunnels and stairs. Contained within the fort are barracks, storerooms, gun rooms, a prison and a chapel. An old lighthouse, which has been on the site for more than 100 years, looks out over the water.
We wandered around the grounds, peeking in rooms and admiring the view. We stepped out of the sun and made our way down the narrow stone stairways to reach the lowest level of the fort, which is sunk surprisingly low compared to the rest of El Morro. From here, we noticed that a stone wall of sorts had been built as a bunker in the water surrounding the fort so it was almost like yet another layer had been added for protection.
My favorite part of El Morro was this crazy triangular staircase inside the fortress that wound from one level to the next. I’ve seen plenty of spiral staircases in my days, but I have never seen a triangular staircase. We couldn’t find any explanation for why it was shaped like it was, but it was fun making the mysterious discovery, especially because so few other people even noticed it existed. A lot of people just walked right by; I’m assuming they figured it was just another dark storeroom.
We made our way back up the ramps, out of the confined fort and back onto the lawn. Spread before us, Old San Juan beckoned with its pastel array of colors. It’s comforting to know that something that was built with a protective military purpose is now only a gateway to a friendly and bustling city in the Caribbean.