Posted in Puerto Rico

Marilyn’s Caribbean Cruise 2016: Part 2 – San Juan, Puerto Rico




My sister’s seven-day voyage aboard MS Adventure of the Seas departed from San Juan — the capital and most populous city in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea. Sailing the evening of July 16, 2016, Marilyn along with husband Keith and son Spencer as well as a friend of Spencer’s, did a bit of sightseeing in Old San Juan prior to boarding the ship:

Ok. This is my last moment of wi-if. Getting ready to head to the ship. This morning in Puerto Rico we visited the historic fort. I mailed you a postcard. Of course, it’s a U.S. Stamp’

San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.
San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.

The fort she is referring to is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or Morro Castle, a sixteenth-century citadel named in honor of King Philip II of Spain. The fortification, also referred to as el Morro or “the promontory,” was designed to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay, and defend the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from seaborne enemies. In 1983, the citadel was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in conjunction with the San Juan National Historic Site. The site also includes Castillo San Cristóbal, built by Spain to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. It is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. When it was finished in 1783, it covered about 27 acres of land and basically wrapped around the city of San Juan. Entry to the city was sealed by San Cristóbal’s double gates. After close to one hundred years of relative peace in the area, part of the fortification (about a third) was demolished in 1897 to help ease the flow of traffic in and out of the walled city.


Puerto Rico (Spanish for “Rich Port”) is an archipelago that includes the main island of Puerto Rico and a number of smaller ones such as Mona, Culebra, and Vieques. The capital and most populous city is San Juan. The territory no longer observes daylight saving time, and its official languages are Spanish and English, though Spanish predominates. The island’s population is approximately 3.4 million. Puerto Rico’s rich history, tropical climate, diverse natural scenery, renowned traditional cuisine, and attractive tax incentives make it a popular destination for travelers from around the world.

Originally populated by the indienous Taíno people, the island was claimed in 1493 by Christopher Columbus for the Kingdom of Castile, and it later endured invasion attempts from the French, Dutch, and British. Four centuries of Spanish colonial government transformed the island’s ethnic, cultural and physical landscapes primarily with waves of African captives, and Canarian, and Andalusian settlers. In the Spanish imperial imagination, Puerto Rico played a secondary, but strategic role when compared to wealthier colonies like Perú and Mexico. Such a distant administrative control continued right up until the end of the nineteenth century helping to produce a distinctive creole Hispanic culture and language that combined elements from the Natives, Africans, and Iberian people. In 1898, following the Spanish–American War, the United States appropriated Puerto Rico together with most former Spanish colonies under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.
San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.

Puerto Ricans are natural-born citizens of the United States. Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the United States Congress, which governs the territory with full jurisdiction under the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950. As a U.S. territory, American citizens residing on the island are disenfranchised at the national level and may not vote for president and vice president of the United States. However, Congress approved a local constitution, allowing U.S. citizens on the territory to elect a governor.

A 2012 referendum showed a slight majority (54% of the electorate) disagreed with “the present form of territorial status”, with full statehood as the preferred option among those who voted for a change of status. Following the vote, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico enacted a concurrent resolution to request the United States president and Congress to end its current status as an unincorporated U.S. territory and begin the process of admission to the union as a state. The initiative has yet produced no response from either branch of the U.S. government.

San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.
San Juan, Puerto Rico post office. Photo by Marilyn B.

When Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico during his second voyage on November 19, 1493, the island was inhabited by the Taíno. They called it Borikén (Borinquen in Spanish transliteration). Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of St John the Baptist. Having reported the findings of his first travel, Columbus brought with him this time a letter from King Ferdinand empowered by a papal bull that authorized any course of action necessary for the expansion of the Spanish Empire and the Christian faith. Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, founded the first Spanish settlement, Caparra, on August 8, 1508. He later served as the first governor of the island. Eventually, traders and other maritime visitors came to refer to the entire island as Puerto Rico, and San Juan became the name of the main trading/shipping port.

San Juan was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521, who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”). Puerto Rico’s capital is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Several historical buildings are located in San Juan; among the most notable are the city’s former defensive forts, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, and La Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas.

The construction of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and its surrounding walls began in 1539 on orders of King Charles V of Spain. Its main purpose was to defend the port of San Juan by controlling the entry to its harbor. In order to have a viable defense while the rest of the fort was being completed, a small proto-fortress was erected during the first year of construction. It is estimated that this section comprises about 10% of the whole structure. It was not till 1587, however, that engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli drew the fort’s final design, which was based on the then firmly established Spanish military fortification principles of the time. Thus, similar Spanish fortifications of the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries can be found in Cuba, Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Veracruz and Acapulco, Mexico, Portobelo, ″Cartagena″ de Indias and Panama City, Panamá, Guatemala, Honduras, and many other Latin American locations which were part of the Spanish Empire during the Age of Exploration.

Many complex structures were added onto El Morro over the next 400 years to keep up with the new military technologies; for example, El Morro’s outer walls, which were originally constructed 6 feet (1.8 meters) thick, had been augmented to 18 feet (5.5 meters) thickness by the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1680, Governor Enrique Enríquez de Sotomayor began the construction of the city walls surrounding San Juan, which took 48 years to build. The citadel was part of the Four Lines of Defense along with the San Cristobal Castle, the first line being formed by the San Gerónimo fortress and the San Antonio bridge. Today, El Morro has six levels that rise from sea level to 145 feet (44 meters) high. All along the walls are seen the dome-covered sentry boxes known as garitas, which have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico itself.

The Lighthouse of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro was built atop the citadel in 1843, but was destroyed during the 1898 bombardment of the city by the United States; it was replaced by the US military with the current lighthouse in 1908. Including the exterior open killing grounds, known as the glacis and esplanade, which could be dominated by cannon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, El Morro is said to take up over 70 acres (280,000 m²).

In 1961, the United States Army officially retired El Morro. The fort became a part of the National Park Service to be preserved as museums. In 1983, the Castillo and the city walls were declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. In honor of the Quincentennial of the voyages of Columbus in 1992, the exterior esplanade was cleared of palm trees that had been planted by the U.S. Army in the Fort Brooke era, and restored to the open appearance this “field-of-fire” for El Morro’s cannon would have had in colonial Spanish times. Parking lots and paved roads were also removed, and the El Morro lighthouse repaired and restored to its original appearance.





I'm an American currently living and teaching English in Phuket, Thailand. I like to read, write, take photographs, and collect stamps. You can read about all of these things and more on my three blogs: Asian Meanderings, "Please, Mr. Postman!", Philatelic Pursuits, . Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s