Above: Trail below the Paseo del Morro. Photo courtesy National Park Service. Right: Campeche view of attack on San Cristobal, drawing from 1904.
No. American history did not begin in 1776. Actually it didn't begin with Columbus or the Vikings either, but that's where the story of San Juan took a turn toward a National Historic Site that's just a whole lot of fun to visit. Spanish exploration of the New World began in 1492 with the first Columbus voyage. By 1533, the forts and bastions that you will see were being built. So if you want to visit something in the New World that traces back about as far as you can, at least as far as a European influence, you'll be hard pressed to find much that dates back further.
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San Juan Then
Imagine Sir Francis Drake firing into the fort of El Morro in 1595, and the Dutch again in 1625. Wait a century and you even had the United States packing punch into those walls in 1898. Imagine the New World from both sets of eyes, the Europeans who settled the area beginning in 1508 and the islanders who met the, okay, let's get this about right, the invasion of new folks.
San Juan Forts Timeline
1493 - Spanish first arrive on the islands of Puerto Rico.
1521 - City of San Juan founded by Spanish colonists. It is the oldest city in the United States and second only to Santo Domingo in the Americas.
1533 - Construction on La Forteleza is begun by the Spanish.
1539 - El Morro construction is started.
1595 - Sir Francis Drake fires on the forts.
1598 - George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, attacks San Juan and captures the three forts, including El Morro. He would control Puerto Rico for several months before leaving.
1625 - Forts are attacked by the Dutch.
1634 - Castillo San Cristobal fort construction begins.
1798 - During the Spanish-American War, El Morro is attacked by the U.S. Fleet.
1983 - Forts are designated a World Heritage Site.
Photo above: Titled, "The First Flash of Fire and Smoke" during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Courtesy National Park Service. Below: Reenactors for the 1797 Commemoration Event. Courtesy National Park Service.
San Juan Now
So what's there now. Fort Castillo San Cristobal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and El Canuelo. Designated a World Heritage site in 1983, the area of the forts is smaller than you'd think, only 75 acres including some private land. But the history it contains and the awesome views from those ramparts are just spectacular.
Inside the Forts - Take a walk, view a film, listen to a ranger describe the history of each fort as if you were back in the days of Spanish gallions and shots fired from sea or land.
Outside the Forts - There's so much to see and do in the city of San Juan, including recreation, the history of Old San Juan itself, plus all those vacation shopping excursions, too. And not too far away is an actual rain forest at the Caribbean National Forest.
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Things You Should Not Miss
1. Start out with a ranger orientation talk. These 20 minute gabs will get you off to the right start with the history you're about to wander through. Perfect way to get going at San Juan NHS. After this start, you might want to explore on your own, watch a film, or go deeper into the history with a longer ranger walk. There's a Tunnel Tour, Lighthouse Talk, and Outer Defenses tour. Check the day's schedule to see what's on tap for the day you want to visit.
2. Take a break at San Cristobal to fly a kite and eat a picnic lunch. The views from the area are great and you'll just love the moment of relaxation among so much history.
3. Take a walk on the Paseo del Morro. What used to be a maintenance road till 1998 is now a trail that lets you walk along the water outside the fort walls and the old San Juan wall, too. They're planning future expansion of this trail to connect both forts.
Photo above: San Cristobal Fortress, 1908. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.