Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Growing up, I hated visiting historical and educational monuments and museums. The last thing I wanted to do on vacation was learn. Couldn't we simply go to Disney World and see Cinderella's castle - much prettier and restored than most other battled-wounded castles and forts. Not to mention there's a variety of fun rides, exciting shows, and delicious food. How could my parents not see the appeal?
While I still love Disney, and am down to visit there any time, I've also found that with growing up, historical and educational monuments aren't always so bad. In fact, they're sometimes cool - and some are located near things better than rides, shows, and food - like the Bacardi Distillery. Hello, free alcohol samples - something not too common just about anywhere. (Although there was some education to that, more than I expected. All I knew about alcohol was that I bought it at a store, drank, and had a good time; but there's way more to making alcohol than meets the eye.)
However, the monument I want to tell you about isn't the Bacardi Distillery; it's the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also known as Fort San Felipe del Morro or Morro Castle) in old San Juan, Puerto Rico. An old Spanish fort, built to protect against seaborne attacks on San Juan in the 16th century, Morro Castle was declared a National Park in 1961, and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1983. In present day, you can take a guided tour through the fort or explore on your own.
And explore on our own was exactly what we did (with pairs of good shoes - seriously, you will need good shoes).
Alongside the Pacific Ocean, we first walked around the city wall (also known as Paseo del Morro trail), built to protect the fort. Looking up, we couldn't see much past the walls, but it sure was beautiful. We saw several cruise ships on the crystal blue water, heading to the Old San Juan port. We also saw several cats - but don't feed. They're taken care of the government, as seen by several hidden cat liters and food bowls among the bushes.
Finally, we made it to the entry way... and just in time. Puerto Rico is known for daily rain showers. Luckily they only last a few minutes, but you still better take cover or risk being soaked. The temperature dropped a significant amount, which was nice from walking in 80 degree heat with the sun beating down on us for over two hours.
Exploring the castle is hard work. There are so many different levels, steep stairs, doors, rooms that we weren't sure if we had seen the entire place, let alone how to get out. Surprising, since El Morro is less than 27 acres, making it quite small. However, size doesn't me much when out of 5 battles, only one resulted in a takeover. And that takeover only lasted a matter of weeks because a case of dysentery struck them and forced any survivors to withdraw and return the fort. Way to go, small guy.
Because El Morro is located at the entrance of the San Juan Bay, it's only fitting it has a lighthouse to help guide ship's ways. First lit in 1908, the lighthouse still serves its purpose to this day.
When El Morro was fully functioning it was said to have had over 200 canons. Today, there are only a few set up for show, but if you look closely at the ground you can see the tracks the canons followed to be moved from one location to the next. In several places throughout the fort, you could find piles of old cannon balls.
One of my favorite shooting places was within the towers, even though a cannon wasn't likely to fit there, but a gunsman could. It was amazing to me that they could shoot through the small, rectangular windows.
Unlike museums, El Morro differs in that it doesn't exactly set you up with what each room used to be. While several did have plaques with information about the fort or the occasional artifact, you really had to put your imagination to use on what the rooms were used for. With so many trap doors, it's not hard to get your imagination rolling. Perhaps doing it that way isn't so bad, because you really don't want to see what they used as a bathroom. Seriously, you don't.
El Morro is an interesting fort to discover, because no matter where you look, you will see something that ignites your interest. Maybe it's the plaque about how to shoot a cannon, or the three flags that the fort waves, or the spiral staircase.
From the top of the fort, you're able to see the gorgeous city of old San Juan: its various cemeteries, brightly-colored houses, and shoreline. For miles, there’s nothing but peaceful beauty. Depending on where you stand upon the fort, you can see across the way to the Bacardi distillery, or if you're like my family, you can pretend it's where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.
(Don't tell me you don't see a slight resemblance.)
After all that walking and sightseeing, you're probably hungry. You should check out my recommendations in Foodie Finds: Where to eat in San Juan to finish off your day.
Brianna Krueger is the Chief Editor of Wandering Educators
All photos courtesy and copyright Brianna Krueger