Built by the Spanish colonizers of Puerto Rico, Castillo de San Cristóbal is now a National Historic Site of the capital city of San Juan. Also referred to as Fort San Cristóbal, it remains the largest structural fortification built by Spanish conquistadores. Completed in 1783, Castillo San Cristóbal covered 27 acres and was San Juan’s protection against land-based military assaults.
Double gates sealed the city from enemy attacks but in 1897, one third of these gates were demolished to ease traffic congestion caused by heavy incoming and outgoing of people, horses, and carriages through the city walls. Built originally on a hill referred to as Cerro del Quemadero, the fort was renamed San Cristóbal after Spanish victories against Dutch and English interlopers.
The film “Wizards of Waverly Place,” starring Selena Gomez and David Henrie, was shot here, where both director and his film crew discovered several 16th century pot fragments, resulting in the presence of archaeologists who dug for more artifacts. In another film, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” it served as a Spanish castle supposedly located in Cadiz.
A visit to Castillo San Cristóbal includes a guided tour conducted by personnel and a brief documentary about the city of San Juan and the surrounding castles, or “castillos,” which are on exhibit the whole day, and a tour of the extensive systems of tunnels that connect different sections of the fortress. Every third Saturday of the month, there are real live firing drills of historic weapons.
Castillo San Cristóbal has a main plaza, quarters for troops, and a guardhouse as well as an observation post for artillery built by U.S. troops during the last world war. You can see authentic mortar shells that weigh 200 pounds each and five cisterns located underneath the main plaza where troops had their drills which held rainwater of 716,000 gallons that supplied the garrison yearly.
There are exhibits of the military clothing worn in different eras of Puerto Rican soldiers, a scale model depicting Castillo San Cristóbal’s complex the way it looked prior to the 1897 gate demolition. And if you’re fortunate, there are even volunteer reenactors that visit the place monthly as part of the 1797 Regimineto Fijo de Puerto Rico.
The Legends of Castillo San Cristóbal
With three flags flying over it – that of the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Cross of Burgundy (the old military flag of the Spanish) – the walls of Castillo San Cristóbal have guerities, also called “garitas” by the locals, with one of them dubbed as “La Garita del Diablo” or “The Devil’s Guerite,” a vantage point to watchmen who guarded and protected the sea shore.
There are various legends about “La Garita del Diablo,” but none is more interesting than the supposed random disappearance of soldiers. Most believe, however, that only one soldier disappeared and was nowhere to be found after he fled his post to elope with his girlfriend Dina. Currently inaccessible for public viewing, this part of the fort is popular with tourists.