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?
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.
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!)
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.
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.