The Garitas of Old San Juan

by Gray Cargill on September 17, 2010

Garita at El Morro

When I traveled to San Juan last winter, I did what most tourists do–visited the forts of El Morro and San Cristobal.  These were the outposts of protection for the island of San Juan against attacks by sea and by land, respectively.  I enjoy touring historic sites whether I’m traveling with others or not, but one thing I noticed on this trip was how my imagination came out to play because I had no one to talk to (or rather, no one to have to listen to).  I wandered the old stone walls to the top of El Morro and almost felt I could hear soldiers’ voices on the wind.  I imagined what it must have been like being a soldier there, all those centuries ago.  A beautiful island, to be sure, but far, far from home, from Spain. What was it like to be on the verge of attack, wondering if the forts would hold the enemy at bay?

Garita at El Morro

The loneliest job of all had to go to the sentries who manned the garitas of the forts. These little, round sentry boxes jutting out from various points along the walls of the forts captured my fancy. They are the official symbol of San Juan, and it’s easy to see why.  There is something a bit romantic about them. They’re photogenic, of course, standing out high above and in stark contrast to the brilliant blue of the ocean.

Garita at El Morro

The paths to get into the garitas are narrow and high, not advisable for anyone with vertigo.  The garitas are small and would only fit one person at a time–and a small person, at that. I’m only 5’5″, and I felt claustrophobic when I went into them. Unless you shouted back to other soldiers along the wall, you would have no one to talk to during the long, lonely hours of your shift.  (And people think solo travelers have a solitary life!)

Garita in Old San Juan

As I stood there, peering out through the narrow gaps, I wondered if I could handle standing in there for several hours, with nothing to do but look out to sea, watching for ships on the horizon that may or may not ever come.  Such was the life of the sentry.  There’s something noble about being the one to keep watch. In many ways, it’s a thankless job, one which offers little excitement, and no glory, yet it’s a pivotal position that requires tremendous concentration and a keen eye.  To fall asleep on the job could spell disaster.  I wonder what thoughts kept them company during those long hours in the garita.

Garitas overlooking Paseo de Princessa in Old San Juan

The most famous of the garitas is at San Cristobal, and it is known as “Garita del Diablo”. This garita is located on a sharp point of the fort, close to the water. Legend has it, soldiers who manned that particular garita would go mysteriously missing, taken by “the Devil”–which seems more appealing to the imagination than what is more likely to have happened:  They took advantage of the isolated spot close to the water and went AWOL. No doubt the stories about being snatched by the Devil were invented to prevent other soldiers from getting the same idea!

A symbol of history, of vigilance, the garitas continue to watch over the city of San Juan and its centuries of change, despite the lack of potential invaders to keep watch for–unless you count the tourists.

Gray February 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Clever strategy, Ted. Those garitas are a bit snug. 😉

Ted February 28, 2012 at 10:40 am

Met a lovely lady on a cruise and we had our first cuddle in a garita at San Juan

MarkPowers October 16, 2010 at 6:22 am

Thanks for the pics, Gray! There’s just something about El Morro . . . love that place. And, as I’m sure you saw, a great spot for kite flying!

Anonymous October 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Yes, although there were only a couple of people flying kites the day I was there.

Anonymous October 14, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Nice shots! Thanks for sharing. You’re right–OSJ is such a picturesque place.

Sabina September 22, 2010 at 7:31 am

I love forts, and those garitas are really cool looking. Are you ever going back there, do you think?

Anonymous September 22, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’d like to. I loved San Juan. But there are so many other places I want to see as well….

Emily September 20, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Great pics! I have never been to Puerto Rico, and didn’t know anything about garitas. You’re right, what a tough job being a sentry would be! Especially being crammed in such a small place and not knowing if you were ever going to see anything that day. At least they had a beautiful view!

Anonymous September 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Thank God for small favors, huh?

Earl September 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm

When I used to work on board cruise ships, San Juan was one of my favorite ports that we visited. I would run off the ship when I had free time and just wander around town and straight up to San Cristobal. And I would just sit down and soak it all in for a couple of hours and I loved every minute of my time there.

Thanks for taking me back to those days!

Anonymous September 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm

I saw ships every day I was there. I can think of worse places to have a few hours off from work. 🙂

aimoyamunoz September 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Very cool! What’s interesting too about the walls and the garitas is that they were once white. Imagine coming to Puerto Rico after weeks of travel on a ship and seeing these brilliant white walls surrounding a small islet. I’m glad you got the Garita del Diablo story in there. 🙂

Anonymous September 18, 2010 at 8:24 pm

I didn’t know that, aimoyamunoz. They would have been gorgeous when they were white–especially against the brilliant blue water.

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