San Juan's walls are full of history
El Morro is strangely topped by a New England-style lighthouse that was built in 1908. The fort and surrounding grounds cover 74 wind-swept acres. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / January 29, 2012)
They are as tall as 42 feet and as thick as 45 feet at the base, 2 feet at the top. The muralla or city wall features two walls of sandstone blocks, filled with sand, mortar, limestone and water.
The walls served San Juan well, thwarting pirates and foreign invaders for hundreds of years. That includes the English, the Dutch and the Americans.
Slaves began building them in 1630 and continued for 150 years. The walls feel military and medieval, and ooze history.
Today, San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city). It was, along with Havana, Cuba, and Cartagena, Colombia, among the Spanish colonial cities with the most formidable walls.
One of the best ways to view the fortress-like walls of San Juan is to stroll El Paseo del Morro, a national recreational trail between Old San Juan and the harbor.
The 1.5-mile round-trip walkway runs outside the walls and next to San Juan Bay and the city's harbor. It was built in 1999 on a dirt trail used to reach the walls for repairs.
You won't be alone on El Paseo del Morro. You will be sharing the trail with the city's most famous occupants: Old San Juan's feral cats.
Hundreds of stray cats live in Old San Juan and roam the streets and the waterfront. The cats are typically found on the trail, in surrounding brush and along the rocks between the trail and the water. They're everywhere. Some are said to have descended from Spanish cats.
A grass-roots group, Save a Gato (cat), manages the feral cats along the trail. That includes providing food and water, plus trapping, neutering, vaccinating and releasing them.
The northern terminus of the trail is next to the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, the Castle of St. Philip of the Headland. It was one of two great forts built by the Spanish to protect San Juan. It is known locally as El Morro.
There are plans to extend the trail to run along the northern side of El Morro, and to the east to the Puerto Rico territorial capital.
The walkway by the water takes you within the shadow of El Morro, a fort that towers 140 feet above the water and guards the San Juan harbor with 16-foot-thick walls. It is the biggest attraction in Old San Juan and is managed by the National Park Service.
Built from 1539 to 1786, it is a sprawling, six-level complex of weathered sandstone with ramparts, gun rooms, storerooms, barracks, ramps, vaulted rooms, a chapel and large interior courtroom. It was staffed by up to 250 Spanish troops.
The fort is studded with small circular sentry posts called garitas, which have become a symbol of Puerto Rico. Strangely, it is topped by a New England-style lighthouse that was built in 1908.
El Morro was attacked by England's Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and was captured by the English in 1598.
Admission to the fort is $3 per day. For National Park Service information, call 787-729-6777 or check out http://www.nps.gov/saju. The fort and surrounding grounds cover 74 acres.
You can get to the trail south of El Morro at the red-painted San Juan Gate with its heavy wooden doors. It was built in 1520 and provided access to the city to Spanish dignitaries and well-to-do arrivals disembarking from ships.
Less prominent arrivals used one of the five other gates found in San Juan's 3.4 miles of walls. The gates all closed at sundown. San Juan is the only surviving original town gate.