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El Morro: Explore a 475 Year Old Fort

El Morro

El Morro is open! .

El Morro Fort, or officially Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, stands guard at the entrance to San Juan harbor as a reminder of a by-gone era when invading countries would attempt sea attacks to take this prized city and harbor.

This beautiful 6-level fort was named in honor of Spain’s King Philip II. The Fort wasn’t initially built as the huge structure that you see today. It has gone through many enlargements and modifications, from the time it was first constructed by Spain through the time that it was occupied by the US Army.

A Brief History of El Morro – Late 1400’s

In 1493, Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) "discovered" Puerto Rico and claimed it for Spain. A little known fact is that Columbus called the whole island San Juan, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Puerto Rico (puerto = "port" and rico = "rich") was the name given to what is known today as the Old San Juan area. It was only later that the names were reversed and the whole island became known as Puerto Rico.


The San Juan harbor is naturally deep and safe, and Puerto Rico is in a strategic location, so it seemed that everyone wanted to call San Juan their own. After Spain claimed the island and started colonizing it, many pirates and privateers tried to invade to get the island and some of Spain’s riches! So Spain always had to fight to keep claim to the island.

After the original fort Fortaleza (now the Governor’s mansion) was deemed to be inadequate protection for the harbor, it was decided that a fort was needed in a better location. So they built a small structure at the north-west tip of Old San Juan, at the entrance to the harbor, on the current site of El Morro. Built between 1539-1540, it was a small fort that held a few men and only 4 cannons.

The Late 1500’s

El Morro

That initial small fort was sufficient for a while, but as Spain expanded their conquests, more and more pirates and privateers tried to take the island. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake, a buccaneer (or a privateer, which was technically a sanctioned pirate!) from England attacked, but the Spanish troops were able to fend him off. In 1598, The Earl of Cumberland (another Privateer from England) attacked and conquered the city, however he could not hold it long. It returned to Spain’s control, and to improve defenses, Spain added some fortification to the little El Morro structure.

The 1600’s – 1700’s

Old San Juan wall

But a weak link was found when in 1625, when the Dutch invaded from the land side of El Morro, where there was no protection. The Dutch were finally driven off about 1½ months later. This attack spurred the building of the walls that encircled the city in 1634. The work continued into the mid 1700’s when the King of Spain decided to make San Juan virtually unconquerable. In 1765, they started the enlargement of El Morro and San Cristobal forts to the massive structures you see today. The whole thing – huge city walls, San Cristobal fort for land attacks, and the El Morro enlargement – took about 150 years to complete. El Morro now had six levels of defense and rose 145 feet above sea level.

These defenses were put to the test in 1797 when Britain tried to besiege the city again. The massive, strong structures withstood the attacks, and the Spanish army was able to defeat the British once again. San Juan then remained safe until modern time.

The 1800’s to the Present

El Morro

In its last test of strength, El Morro stood as a protector of San Juan during the Spanish-American war. In 1898, the US Navy began sea bombardment against El Morro. After only a few hours, it was evident that the old walls and weathered cannons were no match for the modern US weapon technology. The war ended with the signing of Treaty of Paris. Spain ceded ownership of the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines to the United States.

Following the Spanish-American war, the damaged structure and the lighthouse of El Morro were rebuilt. During World War I, the US used El Morro as an outpost to detect and control hostile water activities. It became part of Fort Brooke for the US Army. The green lawn in front of El Morro was even turned into a golf course! For World War II , they added the ugly observation bunkers that can be seen today.

In 1949, El Morro and San Cristobal became the San Juan National Historic Site, administered by the US National Park Service. In 1983, it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Your Visit to El Morro

Main Plaza in El Morro

The National Park Service supplies you with a map when you pay your entrance fee. You can use that map, and the descriptions of the different parts of the fort, to do a self-guided tour of sorts. Go off and explore the fort on your own. El Morro is a massive structure, with 6 levels that you can visit by using various stairs, ramps and tunnels.

There are a few free activities and tours available: Life Inside the Fortification: This happens on the Third Sunday of every month throughout the day. A guide and costumed Living History Demonstrators talk about 18th century life in the fort and will have gun and cannon firing demonstrations. There is also a couple tours available on weekends at 10:30 am and 3:30pm (ask at desk to sign up).

If you don’t want to watch the movie or listen to a park ranger,

Some Points of Interest

Here are some of the more interesting things to see in El Morro. These are great "photo ops".

Garita in El Morro

Garitas – The garitas, or sentry boxes, are located all around the outer walls of the fort. There are a number of them that you can go into. These garitas have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico – you will see their images on many things, from license plates to shot glasses to tee shirts. These make wonderful pictures.

Flags – The three flags flown at El Morro today are the United States flag, the Puerto Rican flag and the Cross of Burgundy flag. The Cross of Burgundy flag is the old Spanish military flag which was flown at El Morro from 1539-1785.

Lighthouse – The lighthouse was rebuilt by the US in 1908 after it was damaged in the 1898 Spanish-American war.

El Morro Water Cannon Battery

Cannon Water Battery – This area was used to protect the entrance to the San Juan harbor with cannon power. Some of the remaining cannons are on display near this area. It’s now a lovely observation area, providing great views of the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

Torre Antigua – The Torre Antigua, or Old Tower, is the oldest part of El Morro. If you go down the tunnel, you can see a shell fragment from the 1898 US bombardment that is still stuck in the wall.

Kitchen & Forge – In this area, you can see the kitchen where meals where prepared and the forge where they did some of their metalwork. The walls are still stained with soot from the hot fires they had in these areas.

Staircases – Be sure to check out the spiral and triangular staircases that go from level to level.

Restrooms – Besides the obvious, there are fantastic views from the window in each of the restrooms. So don’t be surprised if you see someone coming out of the restroom with a camera in-hand!

If you are at El Morro when a cruise ship is coming in or going out of the harbor, you’ll notice that they are very near the west side of the fort. It is an amazing sight to see to see the old (fort) and the new (ship) right next to each other, the old and the new, both massive.

The admission fee is $10.00/person for ages 16 and older, Kids under 15 and under are free. The ticket is good for visiting both El Morro and San Cristobal forts for 24 hours. Your National Park Service passes are valid here.

The fort is open to the public 7 days/week from 9:30am until 4:30pm. Closed New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

You will be walking around a large concrete and rock structure. It will be HOT. Wear sunscreen and drink lots of water (there are water fountains near the restrooms and they sell bottled water in the gift shop).

Allow a minimum of 1 hour, though you’ll probably spend more time if you start looking at the exhibits.

You can call 787-729-6754 for more information.

You can visit their web site or better yet, their Facebook page for more information.

We are in the process of updating the maps we use on our web site. While we're working on that, you can click on the GPS coordinates below to view the location on Google Maps ... assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid … then don't do it! Read more about Safety →

Comments & Discussion Leave a Comment »

There are 24 comments on this article. Add to the Discussion »

I just saw that they are open! 7 days a week, 9:30a-4:30pm right now, but that schedule may change.

Comment by Gwenn on 26 Jan 2021

I see you are correct about their page still saying it is closed. The news article said they were opening, but did not give specifics other than dates. We will have to monitor their pages to see when they are officially opened and what their new health requirements will be.

Comment by Gwenn on 26 Jan 2021

Did El Morro really reopen on January 24, 2021? Their website still says it is closed. I wonder when they'll announce it on their Facebook page? Any update on what the hours will be? Will admission be limited, or will we need to purchase tickets ahead due to Covid? Have you heard from anyone who went? We're planning to visit February 9, hoping it will be open then!!

Comment by Trella on 25 Jan 2021

It is not free that day, it will cost the same as usual.

Comment by Gwenn on 31 Mar 2019

Do you know if El Morro is free on Good Friday or if the admission is still $7/person? And thank you for all the useful information on this site! It was been invaluable.

Comment by Aksh Sharma on 30 Mar 2019

It is a National Park, so yes, it will get you and 3 other people in for free.

Comment by Gwenn on 03 Jan 2019


Comment by LYNDA JUSTICE on 03 Jan 2019

I LOVE EL MORRO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thank you for the map i enjoyed my self guided tour very much.

Comment by I like El Morro on 13 Sep 2018

Yes, parking in OSJ is restricted. We at DayTrips don't have any control over how they post things there, but we suggest tourists should just park in the lots. Safer for your car too!

Comment by Gwenn on 06 Feb 2018

We loved to visit Old San Juan, actually we did three times while we were in Puerto Rico. However, we had a terrible experiece with parking at the last time. We parked our rental car on the street not too far from La Perla and visited the Fort and the surrounding area. We found out we got the parking ticket because we parked on the street that just for residents. The fines was $250.00! We later known the reason why by a local who showed the sign in Spanish. Please have the sign in English also so people can read. We paid the fines the next day so we had a discount of 50 percent. What an experience for the tourists like us! Nhat Dang from Minnesota

Comment by Nhat T. Dang on 05 Feb 2018

This was pretty awesome to learn about.

Comment by Destiny Artzberger on 29 Jan 2018

It is a great place to visit. You probably lucked out and visited on one of the free days (they happen throughout the year to celebrate certain things).

Comment by Gwenn on 30 Sep 2016

My husband and I visited the Fort. Very beautiful and a lovely piece of history here in Old San Juan. We walked every inch of it and took lots of pictures. Entrance was free

Comment by Sherise on 26 Sep 2016

Of course you can explore the forts and Old San Juan without a tour. You can walk up to the fort, or take a taxi (I think it is less than $10 for up to 5 people in a cab). The Trolley is an option, but everyone else on your cruise ship will want to take it, so the lines are long and probably not worth the time waiting. The taxi stop is on Recinto Sur about 2 blocks straight up from the Pier 3/4.

Comment by Gwenn on 18 Jan 2016

We are looking to tour Old San Juan and the El Morro Fort from the cruise ship. Is a taxi or the trolley the best way to do this, if we want to save on the tour fees? If so, will we find that close to where we dock?

Comment by Cherie Brown on 18 Jan 2016

Yes, I guess you are right. The flag was probably flown in Puerto Rico before the fort was built, but obviously could only fly at the fort after it started being built!

Comment by Gwenn on 10 Oct 2015

Under ""Some Points of Interest"" you include the section ""Flags"" and that ""The Cross of Burgundy is the Old Spanish Military flag which was flown at El Morro from 1516-1785. As I understand, the construction of El Morro started in 1539. Is this is true, The Cross of Burgundy flag could not be flown at EL Morro from 1516, that is 23 years before the construction of El Morro started. I am missing something.

Comment by Ramón López on 09 Oct 2015

Yes, $5 will get you into both forts and is valid for a week. Only San Cristobal has parking and it is a small lot. But you don't need a car to tour Old San Juan. It is best to walk around (as driving around there is a nightmare) and not much parking available. Walking around and using the trolley is the way to go!

Comment by Gwenn on 14 Jun 2015

I am getting off a cruise ship and want to tour the forts on our own. If the price really $5 for adults and is there parking for rental cars?

Comment by Kevin Stewart on 13 Jun 2015

The National Park Service has a "virtual tour" on their web site, with 360° images of inside and around the fort ...

Comment by Ray on 12 May 2015

It would be nice if some, anyone, would put a visitor's guide/map of the fort on the web. The National Park Service may well supply you with a map when you pay your entrance fee, but I'm not a big fan of having to decide what I want to do and see at that very moment. Something, anythng, to do a little planning ahead would be appreciated.

Comment by Michael Stenzel on 12 May 2015


Comment by Gwenn on 15 Mar 2015

Just to let you know this website is extremely important to tourists as myself. Congrats to all of you that make this wonderful job. Thank you.

Comment by Camila on 15 Mar 2015

I LOVED the forts when we visited San Juan. It was BEAUTIFUL looking out over the water.

Comment by Annette on 29 Jun 2012

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