What Makes Havana's El Morro Castle Stand Out From the Crowd?

Cuban license plate | © Pedro Szekely / Flickr
Cuban license plate | © Pedro Szekely / Flickr
Photo of Jack Guy
2 January 2018

The fortress that guards the entrance to the bay of Havana has had a long and interesting history since its construction in 1589.

Morro Castle, Havana | © Ben Kucinski/Flickr

Three decades of construction work

Known in Spanish as the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, the castle shares its name with other fortresses in Santiago de Cuba and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The explanation lies in the fact that morro in Spanish means a rock visible from the sea, making it a useful landmark for navigators.

The Havana fortress was built by Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli to repel raiders from the Cuban capital. Slave laborers were used to dig rocks from the moat and build the thick castle walls, although it took 30 years to complete construction due to economic problems and political wrangling.

El Morro castle, Havana, Cuba | © Guillaume Baviere / flickr

Formidable defense system to protect harbor

When the castle was completed in 1630, Antonelli put its most distinctive feature in place. A huge chain was run from El Morro to La Punta castle across the bay, which was raised when hostile ships were spotted. The chain was so thick that it essentially shut the bay to new arrivals, and it would cause massive damage to those that tried to enter.

El Morro was captured by the British in 1762 following a 44-day siege, before the Spanish recovered it under treaty a year later. The British expedition attacked El Morro from the east, inspiring the construction of La Cabaña fortress to protect that flank.

Cars on the Malecón, Havana | © Niek van Son / Flickr

Popular tourist attraction

More recently El Morro has been used as a prison, although it’s now a tourist attraction. Today, visitors to El Morro will notice the Faro del Morro lighthouse, which gives great views along the Malecon. Also keep an eye out for the holes in the back wall of the castle – unfortunate prisoners were once fed to the sharks through them.

If you are around El Morro at 9pm, don’t be startled if you hear the cannons firing. It used to be a signal to close the city walls, but these days it’s more of a show for visitors.

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