Fort San Cristóbal, known as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean,” is located on the eastern side of Old San Juan. Construction on the fort began in 1634 and took over a century to complete. It is one of the largest Spanish forts ever built and the strongest in the Americas. Constructed to fortify Spain’s defense of Old San Juan’s harbor, the fort protected the island from land attacks. It boasts walls that rise 150 above the sea, covers an expansive 27 acres of land, and has five separate independent units that inter connects via tunnels. Each one is higher and stronger than the next utilizing a “defense-in-depth” approach.
Down one of the tunnels you will find the dungeon where there is a death cell. In the 17th century, this little room without electricity and air conditioning had only a small window slit to light and ventilate it. This cell was for prisoners awaiting their execution. Soldiers used iron handcuffs and anklets to chain prisoners to the walls. On the walls there are drawings of five ships done by an artillery captain. The ships have amazing detail right down to the flags identifying which ones belong to the enemy.
Fort San Cristóbal also has a chapel that houses a statue of the fort’s patron saint, Saint Barbara. She is the protecting saint of all artillerymen. In 1898, during the Spanish American War, a cannonball from a U.S. attack went through a nine foot thick wall and stopped just inches from the chapel’s alter where Saint Barbara was dedicated.
The fort remains nearly as it did back in the late 18th century when construction ended. The fort remained active up until 1961 when the United States military stopped using it as a military base. It then became the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and now it is a park and museum. In 1983 it became a World Heritage Site. You can tour the site yourself or sign up for a ranger led tour. The admission fee is $7.
- Two-story building limit – Laws did not allow buildings in Old San Juan taller than 2 stories high so that the cannons from Fort San Cristóbal could fire over them!
- Devil’s Sentry Box– There is a story that the devil himself haunts the fort. There is one remote and inaccessible garita (guard tower) that faces the ocean and bears the nickname “The Devil’s Sentry Box.” According to legend, some mysterious disappearances took place here. One night a guard tower sentry on duty disappeared from his post and nobody ever found him. A second guard assigned to duty there disappeared while at his post. No one found him either, just his musket. The story began circulating amidst the fort soldiers that the devil himself must have taken them. Terror spread among the guards to such a point that no one was willing to guard that post. Soldiers abandoned it and closed it.
The $7 admission gets you access to both Cristóbal and El Morro and you have up to 7 days to visit the second fort. Kids under 15 years of age are FREE!