Saturday, May 27, 2017


The last places we visited in San Juan were two "castles" or fortresses on top of a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Together they make up the San Juan National Historic Site, a World Heritage Site since 1983 that is managed by the U.S. National Park Service.

The first was the Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest Spanish fortification in the New World. It was finished in 1783, covered 27 acres, and was used as a fortress through World War II.

The outside walls are impressively massive:

This would be a kid's dream playground for many reasons, among which is the fact that there are six hidden underground tunnels.

One of the rooms has ships sketched on the wall. These may have been drawn by a Spanish captain held in the room awaiting his execution for mutiny:

Time to head back outside to get some fresh air:

The US flag, the Puerto Rico flag, and the Burgundy Cross, which was the Spanish military flag that flew here during Spanish colonial rule, were flapping in the breeze:

The fort has everything soldiers might have needed, including a little church:

The view of San Juan from the ramparts helped me understand why the location was so perfect for a fortress:

As noted at the beginning of this post, this fortress continued to be used for defense through World War II.  In fact, it was even expanded for various uses:

The U.S. Army built this ominous concrete observation post as a base from which to search for enemy submarines and warships:

We searched for the enemy attackers through the slits in the wall, but we couldn't find any:

See that little tower just right of center? It's called a garita, or sentry box, and in the early days of the fortress it served a purpose similar to the more modern observation post above. Twenty-eight of these garitas are strategically located around the fortress.

They are much smaller than their WWII counterparts. Only one person at a time can fit in them:

Spanish guards still hang out at the San Cristobal Fortress, and they have big guns, so Bob, you should probably respect the "Do Not Enter" stance they've taken:

I assume this ramp isn't there to make San Cristobal ADA compliant, but so that men could roll cannons up to the rooftop where they would be useful:

What a view.

As stated at the beginning of the post, there are TWO fortresses located next to each other in San Juan, so we left the San Cristobal Fortress:
The walk of a little less than a mile between the two fortresses has some beautiful views, the kind that make Puerto Rico a popular tourist destination:

Wedged between the two fortresses on either end and between the road and the Atlantic Ocen is the Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. A fortress wall almost bisects the cemetery. The older graves are on the right and weave arround the white building in the picture below, and more recent graves continue on to the salmon-roofed building in the distance, which is in the farthest sector of the cemetery. Puerto Rico's richest and most famous people are buried in this cemetery or are snapping up available plots for future "homesteading."
This is supposed to one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, and unfortunately we a) didn't know that, and b) didn't have a lot of time for a detour.

A closer view shows how dense the gravesites are:

Eventually we arrived at Castillo San Felipe del Morro,  known locally as El Morro, or "the promontory." It was named after King Phillip II of England, the king during whose administration the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was first used to describe the realm.

The grassy fields on either side of the walkway are an esplanada, or a wide open area that gave gunners in the fort ample time and space to shoot the advancing enemy. It takes five or ten minutes to travel up that long walk way--no cars allowed, although we did see a loaded tram--and it is easy to see why so many Dutch and British soldiers who were involved in attacks on the fort were killed in this field, thereby crippling their force.

El Morro was built to protect the San Juan Bay, a sheltered and strategically important port. It seemed a little more elegant and ornate to me than its counterpoint San Cristobal:

Of course, maybe it's just been more thoroughly remodeled.

We are used to square and rectangular buildings, but the forts were built to take advantage of natural land and sea features, which explains the odd shape of this interior courtyard.

The model below shows a bird's-eye (drone's?) view of the fortress:
I'm not sure what this room was used for. It almost looks like a courtroom:

One very lonely cannon:

I couldn't get enough of the views of the shoreline, each one unique:

There are those three flags again:

And there is one of those cute little guard towers:

Well, we were hot and tired and time was waning. We needed to walk back to the hotel that was storing our luggage and then get ourselves to the airport.

As we left the fortresses, we noticed something going on at this Italian-gold building. Apparently Target has found its way to Puerto Rico:

One last thing about Puerto Ricans--art is in their blood. On our way back to the hotel, we passed several interesting and unusual pieces of art.

This one is entitled Ballaja, the name of the neighborhood near that fortress that is full of large military barracks that were built in 1854-1864 for the Spanish troops and their families on the island. To build the barracks, six blocks of local housing and other structures were razed, a terrible blow to locals. Later, the barracks became housing for the U.S. military, and during World War II they were used as a military hospital. The local government finally acquired the buildings in the 1970s, and in the 1990s, they were remodeled, restored, and converted into an arts center.
That's a long explanation, and you may be wondering what it has to do with this sculpture. A plaque on the base says this (translated from Spanish): 
Allegory of the rescue of the district of Ballaja by the Puerto Rican people. The woman represents the district, and the cloak on which she sits is the "forgotten." The old man, equipped with claws and the skull of a bird of prey, trying to hide it, represents all those forces that somehow have kept cover, after the forgotten Ballaja. The young man symbolizes the new spirit of a generation of Puerto Ricans struggling to rescue the past from oblivion, thus affirming the value of their identity.

Next is a statue of Eugenio Maria de Hostos. Why is he holding up dancing people on his arms and head? He was a Puerto Rican educator, philosopher, lawyer, sociologist, and revolutionary advocate for Puerto Rico's independence. His dream was to create a union between Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. While he did not realize that dream, he did help develop the educational systems of many Caribbean and South American countries.

We kept walking, enjoying the rainbow palette Puerto Ricans use for their homes:

The adjacent colors always seem to work with each other. I wonder if there is a San Juan Paint Committee that approves the choices?

Even the parking garages have a distinct Puerto Rican flair:

. . . and so do the freeway underpasses:

Lest I give the impression that all of San Juan is so beautiful, I include this picture. There was a race (5K? Marathon? I don't know) happening on the street we were walking on, and I snapped this picture of one of the participants running uphill. Beyond him is a less flattering photo of the neighborhood:

I'll end this post and my series of posts on Puerto Rico (and our Caribbean cruise) with some shots of some great street art on the Avenida de las Artes. The multi-colored buildings make great canvasses for this type of work.  I wish I knew who these people are, and who the artist was. I'll bet there are lots of good stories here.


However, this last subject I can identify. He is independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), who  was fluent in eight languages and would have graduated as the valedictorian of Harvard Law School if one of his professors had not delayed his exam to prevent him from graduating, thereby saving the school the "embarrassment" of a Puerto Rican valedictorian. Later, he spent 26 years in prison for trying to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico.

There are a lot of stories like these in Puerto Rico (and in the other Caribbean countries). How sad that we don't know more of them. But that is precisely one of the reasons to travel, isn't it? 


  1. A hot and muggy morning with lots of walking, transportation curtailed by the race that was going on that walled off traffic from Old Town. It would have been nice to visit the two forts in cooler weather. They are very scenic and beautiful, as is all of Old Town.

  2. Given the number of forts, life must have revolved around self-defense. At least the soldiers had spectacular views! I love your street art at the end--I didn't see it.