Chief on the "what to do in Puerto Rico" list ist a visit to El Morro. El Morro is the lynchpin of San Juan’s old colonial fortifications. In the 16th century, Spain was receiving galleons loaded with treasure from South and Central America. The shipping lanes between Spain and the port cities of the Americas were dangerous and unguarded. Pirates and enemies of Spanish preyed upon the galleons in search of fortune. To protect the shipping lanes, the “Rich Port” of the Island of San Juan was founded. “Rich Port”, or Puerto Rico, was colonized in 1508. It had initially been sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493. A cartographer transposed “San Juan Bautista” with “Puerto Rico” on a map around 1521, and thus the capital city adopted the name of San Juan, and the island of Puerto Rico acquired its hame.
Fortifications for defense against pirates, the British, and the Dutch were begun in 1539. Construction continued for the next four hundred years, with the addition of San Cristobal and outer walls six feet thick encircling the city of San Juan (today, Old San Juan). The outer walls required 48 years to complete, and by the 18th centry had grown to 18 feet (5.5m) thick. The castle was the final line of defense against invading navies. The first line of defense is still visible outside of the Caribe Hotel at the Fort Geronimo site.
El Morro today rises 145 feet (44 m) and six levels above sea level. The walls are periodically dotted with dome covered sentry houses called “garitas”. A lighthouse was added to the pinnacle of El Morro in 1843 and replaced in 1908.
El Morro has withstood centuries of attacks. The first attack came in 1595 by England’s Sir Francis Drake. Drake was defeated by El Morro’s overpowering armaments. Sir George Clifford attempted another invasion in 1598, this time by land. Clifford entered an abandoned San Juan and laid siege to El Morro. The Spanish troops were suffering from dysentery and lack of munitions and supplies, and surrendered to the English on July 1, 1598.
Fortunately for the Spanish crown, Clifford was also suffering from dysentery contamination which soon decimated his troops. Forced to leave Puerto Rico, Clifford burned and pillaged the city of San Juan.
The Dutch attempted to take El Morro in 1625, but were thwarted by the troops stationed inside El Morro. Once again, the invading army burned San Juan to the ground.
The Americans, not be outdone by their European brethren, attempted to take El Morro three times during the Spanish American War in 1898. Once again, El Morro’s fortifications withstood bombardment.
In the end, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as condition of Spain’s surrender. The walls of El Morro have never been breached. It is considered to be so secure that the Government of Puerto Rico has a standing policy to relocate the Governor inside El Morro in the event of a national catastrophe.