When you enter Santiago de Cuba, the first thing you’ll see may very well be San Pedro de la Roca, or El Morro, as the locals call it. On a morro, a promontory, above Santiago, it was constructed to protect the harbour of Cuba’s second city.

By chance, I’ve visited many military forts the last few years, and have found them surprisingly interesting. Going through photos, I was reminded of a visit to El Morro years ago.

Compared to Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress in Helsinki harbour, or the Bellinzona castles in Switzerland, or the many constructions of Vauban, that prolific architect of Sun King Louis XIV, El Morro may seem a bit subdued. But this Renaissance naval fort is in fact the best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, and it took more than 100 years to plan and build. I think that speaks of some pretty impressive dedication, especially considering the opposing forces, natural and man-made. The three major ones:

Lust for political power

Just like St Kitts was tossed back and forth between England and France through most of the 17th and 18th centuries, so Cuba was fought over by Spain and various other nations out to increase their possessions, Britain and France amongst them. Then, during the Spanish – American war in 1898, the USA occupied Guantanamo Bay, ostensibly to “enable the United States to maintain independence of Cuba.” Funny, isn’t it, how they’re still there, 98 years after Cuba became an independent country. But I digress.

Natural forces

A series of earthquakes hit in the late 1600s, and another series again in the mid-1700s. All round bad luck on that one.

Lust for riches

Not only did earthquakes abound in those days. So did pirates. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Although, heaven knows why we think that. They were in general crims, out to steal and possibly murder. (Though, I have to say, I’m kinda hoping it wasn’t just lust for riches, but also a sense of adventure. Surely it must have been, don’t you think? For some, at least? Argh!)

Again, the British and the French seemed to rule the seas. British and French pirates, that is. Santiago,  the poor city, was looted and pillaged by the French in 1553, by the English 50 years later, and by the English yet again 50 years after that, headed by one Sir Christopher Myngs. And quite legally, too. As usual, one country’s hero is another country’s terrorist pirate. Myngs, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Frances Drake…  all legal pirates.

To say simply that English piracy flourished during the last half of the 16th century is a gross understatement of the situation. It had, in fact, achieved the status of a recognized profession.

US National Parks Service website

(Let me hurry up and add that we weren’t much better in these parts. Over the centuries, Norwegian pirates did some serious government approved looting of English ships, especially during the Gunboat War in the early 1800s).

El Morro practicals

After piracy lost its glamour and died out, El Morro was used to house political prisoners. You can have a look at the tiny prison cells and there’s a museum dedicated to piracy on site.

El Morro is 10 km south of Santiago, and easily accessible by bus from the city centre to Ciudamar, followed by a 20-minute stroll to the foot of the hill. Then you’ll have fun climbing all the stairways and tunnels connecting the different terraces. Across the levels, you’ll find an entire complex with a moat, batteries, artillery bulwarks, bastions and magazines on many levels.

Just as good are the wonderful views of the Caribbean. I had my then 8-year-old along, so we left well before dusk, but I can well imagine sunsets must be stunning from the top of El Morro. All in all, this is a cool place to explore in Santiago de Cuba.


World at a Glance is a series of short articles here on Sophie’s World, most often with just one photo, portraying curious, evocative, happy, sad, wondrous or unexpected encounters.


unesco logo

San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited around the world.