Looming above the entrance to the feisty, salsa fuelled firecracker of a city that is San Juan, the ancient fortress of San Cristobal seems to have almost nothing in common with the lively, teeming metropolis that draws legions of holiday makers each year. It sits on a headland, a gaunt grey, battle scarred colossus that seems somehow adrift in its own time and space. Even the surging ocean rollers that drum the beaches far below it seem to recoil from its stony scowl.
Yet the vast complex has history in droves. It was originally built by the occupying Spaniards to repel any potential foreign attackers. In the Caribbean of that time, there were plenty of those, from the English, to the Dutch and a small armada of local privateers. For the fleets of Spanish galleons, wallowing across the treacherous Atlantic back to Europe loaded with the spoils of looted Aztec and Mayan temples, San Juan was a place of potential shelter and resupply. San Cristobal was the gatehouse to the southern approaches to that same harbour.
The first, small part of the fortress was built in 1634, after abortive attacks by Sir Francis Drake on the neighbouring El Morro castle on the opposite headland. It was greatly expanded between 1765 and it’s eventual completion in 1783. In all, the massive stone walls originally occupied around twenty seven acres and, over the years, it survived numerous attacks by both the British and the Dutch.
It last saw active military use during the Spanish-American War of 1898, although some of it’s fortifications were reactivated by the US Army during World War Two. Today, the fortress and its battlements are a registered historical national park, and it attracts literally hundreds of thousands of awed visitors each year.
The fortress itself has a menacing stance even in broad daylight, when the mid day sun throws long shadows along its ancient, weathered battlements. The centuries old stone ramparts seem to rise straight up from the sea itself in places, an optical illusion caused by height and stance.
A central plaza is flanked by ancient, colonnaded passageways and vast, hexagonal water towers that have been dry for centuries. In days of old, this would have been the parade ground for both Spanish and American garrisons. The true scale of this vast arena can only be really appreciated from the next level up.
On the upper level, the ancient ramparts loom like serried ranks of jagged, stony molars against a petrol blue sky. Far below, the surging ocean rollers that once carried British and Dutch invaders ashore now flail endlessly against the beaches and rocks far below. At intervals, a series of small, one man archery (later musket) posts stand frozen in time, offering views far out over the ocean. Many an initial alarm was sounded from one of these petrified stone perches that stand frozen in time.
It is all too easy to see the serried ranks of gaping, open mouthed cannon spewing smoke, flame and steel death across the sea. A stack of frozen, long since silent cannon balls stands in a pile here, arrayed as it once might have been in battle order. Lovers now stroll the long, grassy ramparts below where supply trains and walking wounded would once have made their way in and out of the fortress.
Back inside, long, steep tunnels hewn into the rock provided cover for moving troops and supplies safely throughout San Cristobal. They are every bit as eerie and evocative as they must have been even back then. For the beleagured Spanish troops under bombardment from the sea, these claustrophobic warrens must have seemed like mouse traps.
There are small, gaunt dungeons that were the last living abodes of many captured pirates; some of them carved initials and even emblems into the pitiless stone walls that were the antechamber to the gallows. Stark and silent, the very stones seem to be soaked in lore, grief and sheer, uncontrollable terror.
The scope and scale of San Cristobal is as grand, ageless and arrogant as that of the mentality that conceived it. A magnificent piece of engineering by any standards, it was intended to cement and maintain the iron grip of the occupying Spaniards on an island that they rightly saw as a vital link in a chain, designed to protect their pillaged conquests from both Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
It is an absolute must see if you’re in Puerto Rico during the day. But nothing- and I mean nothing- would compel me to spend the night in that place alone.