Timeless and unforgettable views of the crystal blue sea and bay below from high on the steep cliffs help make Castillo del Morro Santiago de Cuba’s leading tourist attraction. This compelling attraction also sports a comfortable restaurant next door where a relaxing mojito can be enjoyed atop the bay. If visiting Santiago de Cuba, the Castillo del Morro is a must.
High on the cliffs overlooking Santiago de Cuba, the Castillo del Morro or more accurately the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca de Santiago de Cuba once provided protection from pirates and foreign invaders. With remarkable vantage points, the fortress provided firepower and cover for various invasion points to the Bay of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s most prolific port and capitol city during the colonial era.
Historians could spend days at Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a UNESCO World Heritage site and regarded as the finest surviving example of Spain’s military presence in the Caribbean. Castillo del Morro is also the best remaining work of the most prominent military architects in the Caribbean. The father and son team of Bautista and Juan Bautista Antonelli also designed the Three Kings Morro in Havana and San Sebastian Castle in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
One cannot help but feel the presence of history when viewing these carefully restored remains. The morros of Cuba’s serve permanent testimony to the tremendous influence of Spain on the physical properties and architecture throughout Cuba and Santiago de Cuba. The fortifications at the mouth of Santiago de Cuba, six miles from the city center, have undergone centuries of modifications and reconstruction. When UNESCO approved reconstruction of the historic fortress, Castillo del Morro came alive again. Santiago de Cuba has many attractions, but this one is special.
In the late 16th century, Spain’s naval supremacy in the Caribbean was threatened by vast English fleets and hosts of notorious privateers. In response, Philip II ordered increased fortifications and manpower at key seaports in the Caribbean. As Cuba’s leading seaport and city, Santiago de Cuba was the pearl in the oyster. Juan Bautista Antonelli met with Santiago’s mayor, Pedro de la Roca y Borja and construction of a more substantial military base and castle commenced in 1638.
Despite improvements and the creation of a rudimentary fortress in the same location, the British took possession of the city for two weeks in 1662. The castle was destroyed and the armory raided. Construction of the new Castillo del Morro commenced in1663 and was completed in 1669. Spain allocated a permanent military force of 300 to the base. As England increased its naval and military presence in the Caribbean, expansion at Santiago de Cuba’s morro continued. Major improvements were undertaken between 1738 and 1740. Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca suffered damage to earthquakes in 1678 and 1679 and then again in 1757 and 1766. Each time, the morro was rebuilt. The busy seaport relied heavily on security provided by the fortress and Santiago blossomed under its watch.
The fortress is terraced and has a dominating stance over the bay. The steep 20 meter cliffs were the first line of defense but El Morro is the classic Spanish bastioned fortification. The castle features three primary batteries. La Esrella and Santa Catalina batteries overlook the bay’s canal while the Aguadores battery protects the southern coast. The castle’s numerous terraces are connected with series of stone stairs. La Lengua de Aqua Ravelin was the original fortification and comprises the lowest level of the morro. Just above the watermark, it commanded respect but not the range of the higher batteries.
The castle citadel was 62 years in the making. Construction began in 1638 and was fi8nally completed in 1700. When UNESCO rehabilitated the morro, the citadel was once again available for viewing. Castillo del Morro was a formidable fortress with a significant armory and supply warehouses built into the rock center of the base. Supplies arrived by ship and were carried up the stairs to the fort’s storage areas, an almost unimaginable undertaking. Artillery was safe in the heart of the morro but supply distribution was cumbersome at best.
The United States attacked the Castillo during the Spanish American War but over time the fortress withstood challenges from many pirates, the English and French. During and after a thought-provoking day at Castillo del Morro, Santiago de Cuba, tourists usually congregate at Restaurante El Morro to contemplate the wondrous history of this special landmark.