UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has a mission of promoting peace and security throughout the world through international cooperation in education, the arts, science, and culture. One project of UNESCO is the identification and preservation of World Heritage Sites. These are locations throughout the world which are of outstanding value to humanity.
In Puerto Rico, La Fortaleza and the entire Old Town of San Juan are a World Heritage Site.
World Heritage Sites
UNESCO identified Old San Juan and La Fortaleza as a World Heritage Site not only because it is the oldest European construction still in existence in the Americas, but also because it holds significant examples of European architecture from the 16th to the 20th centuries.
World Heritage Sites are chosen for their universal value. Other World Heritage Sites in the United States include the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.
Between 1533 and 1540, La Fortaleza was built in what is now San Juan, in order to guard the bay and fortify the town against attacks. The original structure consisted of a circular tower and four stone walls. It is a good example of European military architecture of the time, and it shows the changes in technology over the centuries as well as the adaptations required for the climate and terrain, which are very different from those of the Old World.
While La Fortaleza was built to fend off the attacks of the Caribs, it was instrumental in the defense of the town against other European military incursions. It fell to British forces in 1598 and to the Dutch in 1625. Over the years, the fortress was updated and rebuilt, and a second military tower was added.
It served as a fort, an arsenal, and a prison. From 1640 on, the governors of Puerto Rico usually lived in this building.
In 1864, it was established as an official residence for the governors of Puerto Rico. Government offices are also contained in the building.
Since 1960, La Fortaleza has been a National Historic Site, part of the National Parks System.
Old San Juan
The historic district of San Juan celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2021. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the New World, and one of the first European settlements in the Caribbean. It is also a National Historic Site, under the National Park Service.
Old San Juan is known for its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and its large population of feral cats. It is home not only to La Fortaleza, but also to three other forts: San Felipe del Morro, San Cristóbal and San Juan de la Cruz.
Buildings from the 16th century are still standing, but there are also Baroque buildings from the 18th century, and Art Deco buildings from the 20th century.
La Fortaleza and Old San Juan are part of the rich heritage of Puerto Rico, which enriches the United States as a whole.