Guarding the entrance to the Bahía de Santiago, this seemingly impregnable fortress is built atop a rocky promontory and entered across a formidable drawbridge. The medieval and Renaissance-style structure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a warren of platforms, passageways, and cells spread across five levels and protected by 1.5m-thick (5-ft.) walls. It was engineered in 1638 by the Italian architect who built similar fortresses in Havana, as well as Cartagena, Colombia and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to protect against pirate attacks (which it didn't do so well, as pirates including Henry Morgan succeeded in ransacking the place).
The site, where the sun beats down unrelentingly, has magnificent views of the bay and the Caribbean coastline stretching all the way to the Sierra Maestra. Inside the fortress, built above a dry moat, is a sparse museum (with display explanations in Spanish only) detailing the history of piracy, El Morro, and Santiago de Cuba. One room contains artifacts related to the 1898 Spanish-American War -- its principal naval battles were fought right in the Bay of Santiago. The 19 modern American ships sank all seven Spanish ships; ironically, the Spanish ship Cristóbal Colón was the last to sink, thus closing the door on the history of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.
A daily ceremony, called the Puesta del Sol, takes place at sunset, recalling the importance of the fortress in the 19th century. Youngsters dressed as mambises, or members of the Cuban rebel army, lower the flag and shoot off the ancient (ca. 1805) Spanish cannon to cries of "!Viva Cuba Libre!" Visiting El Morro for the day-ending ceremony, when it has cooled off some, is an excellent idea. You'll need about an hour to tour the complex. Avoid the hours of 11am to 4pm at all costs; if you do come in the middle of the day, two great spots for lunch -- and cooling off -- are the nearby Restaurant El Morro and El Cayo.
To get there, an organized excursion or a car or taxi is required. The fortress is about 15km (9 miles) south of the center of Santiago along the Carretera del Morro.
- © Frommer's 2013
Ask a local about Castillo El Morro
Ask Santiago De Cuba Locals about Castillo El Morro
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