Swashbuckling swordfights, thundering cannons, and the cries of the victors and the vanquished are what faintly echo in the imagination, as you walk the oldest executive mansion that has been continuously in use in North and South America. Such is the historical and social importance of La Fortaleza (The Fortress), the very first fortification that was built in San Juan harbor in Puerto Rico.
Human Drama and Military Action
If all of life were only a stage, Puerto Rico and its history would be an astounding performance replete with heart-rending human drama and oozing with heart-pounding military action, of which La Forteza would be one of the focal points.
A circular tower and four immense stone walls were what made up the original fortification, as it was originally built between 1533 and 1540. By the end of the 16th century, a new tower was erected by the Spaniards. Their military saw it as a good vantage point versus the Carib Indians.
However, it turned out that it wasn’t the ferocious Caribs whom the Spanish had to be wary of, but the English, who invaded in 1598, and the Dutch who also attacked in 1625. Failing to wrest control of the fort, the Dutch decided to burn the city and everything else down to the ground, including the fort.
Where the Governor Lives
The fortress was rebuilt. In the process, the Santa Catalina chapel, which had originally stood outside the fortress, was demolished and became integrated with the walls of fortress. It is for that reason that La Fortaleza is also known as Santa Catalina’s Palace.
Fifteen years after the Dutch military’s debacle, the Spanish politicians and rulers of the time decided to make the fortress the official residence of the Spanish Captain-General of Puerto Rico. Starting in 1640, it became traditional for all who became the Governor of Puerto Rico to live in the fortress, a clear acknowledgment of the formidable strength of La Fortaleza. That tradition has never been broken, up to the present.
1846 saw the further enlargement of La Fortaleza and alteration of its street façade.
That was the condition of the fortress in 1898, when the last Spanish governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo De Ortega, was said to have stopped a grandfather clock at the exact time that Spain was defeated by the US during the Spanish-American War. For its historical and cultural value, the UNESCO listed it in 1983 as part of the World Heritage Site named “La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site”.
Mansion and Garden
What used to be a main point of defense against the marauding enemy is now a multi-room mansion with an exquisite garden. It is only the first floor of La Fortaleza which is open to visitors, at USD3.00 for a 20-minute tour every Monday to Friday, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
A tour guide provides a running commentary about the history and significance of the site. There are Spanish and English language tours, so, be sure about getting a tour in the language that you prefer.