Fort San Cristóbal – Puerto Rico’s historic and beautiful landmark

Fort San Cristóbal, as I mentioned in my article “Old San Juan – Beautiful Views and What to Do,” is a must-see on any trip to Old San Juan.

Even if you think history is kind of a yawner, the views will astound you — just the color of the stone is visually luscious enough to charm you. And since we’re on the topic, here’s a quick history lesson for you. I’ll try to make it fun.

Christopher Columbus was the first documented European to set foot in Puerto Rico (originally called “San Juan Bautista”) in 1493. It was his 2nd voyage to the new world, and one of the first Europeans vs. Native Americans throwdowns reportedly occurred when two boys were kidnapped and castrated. Then, in 1508, Spaniard Juan Ponce de León (who still has a prominent San Juan street named after him) showed up and founded a small settlement called Caparra (now ruins). As Puerto Rico was now part of “New Spain,” the Spanish eventually set up a fort to protect the island: The Castillo de San Cristóbal, or, Fort San Cristóbal, completed in 1783 (following numerous attacks by the English and the Dutch).

Images by Tony J. Riley.

Originally, the fort wrapped around the entirety of San Juan and the only entrance to the city was through its well-guarded gates. It was The Great Wall of Not-China, if you will (come on, it’s a callback to Columbus … okay, the joke’s not very good. But I’m still gonna keep it there.). In 1897, they dynamited the walls to allow San Juan to expand (oops).

Then, on May 10, 1898, Castillo San Cristóbal fired cannons at the US Navy, thus entering the Spanish-American War. Six months later, the Spanish-American War ended, and Puerto Rico became and American territory under the Treaty of Paris.

In 1942, when World War II was in swing, the U.S. beefed up the fort with concrete pillboxes and an underground bunker control center. The fort remained an active military base until 1961, when it was bequeathed to the U.S. National Park Service for preservation and museum-ification.

Fort San Cristóbal is now suitable for tourist gawking and historical reenactments by The Fixed Regiment of Puerto Rico (really!). Click through the gallery for a look at the beautiful fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often billed as “the most impressive structure in the new world” (by decree in 1949).