El Morro Lighthouse Tour
If you have ever been to (or even seen) Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro Fort), you might have noticed the stark difference in the look and construction of the walls of the fort versus the lighthouse atop the fort. Have you ever wondered why they are so different? Why is the lighthouse grey? Can we go up in the lighthouse?
All those questions will be answered when you take the free Lighthouse Tour offered by the National Park Service at El Morro. We did just that a few weeks back and learned a bunch of new stuff.
A Little Background about the Lighthouse at EL Morro
There have been four lighthouses at El Morro. The first lighthouse in Puerto Rico was built in 1846 to mark the entrance to the San Juan port. It was small, and used only a fire and reflectors to spread the light, so it wasn’t visible too far out at sea. A new cast iron lighthouse was built on a rampart closer to the sea in 1876. This is the location of the current lighthouse. That second lighthouse was destroyed during the US bombardment in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
Due to its importance to mariners, an new lighthouse (number 3) was built by the US Navy and was put into use by early 1899. But the north coast of the island is rough on construction, and this "new" lighthouse had to be replaced in 1908 by the better-constructed one (number 4) that still stands today.
This new design tried to incorporated some of the fancy "castle" features seen around the original fort. It also has a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens which allows the light to be seen many miles out at sea. It was updated with an automated electrical motor, and this is still the system used today. The lighthouse recently underwent a refurbishment that was finished in 2009. The lighthouse is only open to the public during this speical tour.
We met guide, National Park Service Ranger Joandiel Resto, at 2:30pm in the main plaza of EL Morro. He spoke briefly about the fort itself, why it was built and how it was used in the defense of San Juan. He also explained how it grew and changed over the years. But this was a Lighthouse Tour, so our focus was on the way the lighthouse helped the mariners throughout the years. We were quickly off to the top of the fort to observe and learn.
As we came up the ramp, he pointed out the remains (foot print still visable in the floor) of the first lighthouse that graced the fort. In the past we had noticed this footprint, but never knew what had been there.
Joandiel told us some of the history of the lighthouse, and he had pictures of the earlier lighthouses and their designs. He said they decided to replace the original one with a new one in a better location (where it could be better seen from the ocean). So we headed off to check out the existing lighthouse. He explained the history of the lighthouses that stood here. The current lighthouse is actually the third one on this spot.
The first one was destroyed in the war and the second one was not built to withstand the elements. This third lighthouse was well-built and with state-of-the-art mechanisms, so with some refurbishments, it is still in use today.Today, the lighthouse is operated and maintained by the US Coast Guard.
After our discussion about the history of the lighthouse, he opened the door and we went in. The base leads you up to the spiral staircase. It is steep and the steps are short, then you get to a ladder that is vertical. I would think that this is not an easy climb for people with knee issues or anyone with a fear of heights.
You can see the lens from the inside, and once you get outside there is a great view. One has to take precautions when outside — the wind is strong and there are no railings to keep you from falling over. Watch any kids carefully! The upside is that we got some great photos from up there.
Oh yeah, and about the color — The original lighthouse was painted grey with white trim. After rebuilding, the US Navy used the paint they had available — Battleship Grey — and as it turns out, it was very similar to the original color. It was repainted in the mid-1900s to a cream to blend in more with the castle, but was repainted grey in 1993 for accuracy purposes.
We really enjoyed this tour. Afterward we spent some time talking to our guide. There are many more interesting features about the forts that you can learn by talking to the rangers and asking questions. Look forward to an upcoming article about the little know secrets and tours available at our Puerto Rico World Heritage Sites.
Surprisingly, Ray and I were the only people who signed up for this tour on the day we went. People are really missing out on a great opportunity to learn about the World Heritage Sites when they don’t take advantage of this and the other free tours offered by the National Park Service in Old San Juan. Of course, as we walked around, other people were asking to join the tour and go up into the lighthouse. Just join from the beginning and learn some stuff!
The Lighthouse Tour is free with admission to El Morro, which is $3/adult. Kids are free.
The Lighthouse Tour is offered in Spanish on Saturdays at 2:30pm. On Sundays, tours are offered in English at 2:30pm.
They can accommodate a maximum of 20 people on the tour, so sign up early. Once 20 people sign up, they stop taking names.
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