Probably no other place portrays Havana as evocatively as El Morro: its famous beacon guiding sailors to a safe port, lighting up Havana nights, and serving as a luxury balcony to enjoy the most spectacular sunsets in the capital.
A symbol of the city, and hence of Cuba, every stone of this fortress tells a story, if you know how to listen to it. The "Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro" (The Castle of the Three Kings of El Morro) went from being a bastion and watchtower in colonial times to becoming an inevitable destination for the newcomer.
At least I felt as if going through a time tunnel while crossing the narrow loophole corridor up to the entrance gate, anticipating the beautiful views that would unfold at the end of the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse. This is certainly a place to play pretend and imagine yourself an adventurer, a pirate or a conqueror.
A medieval castle in the New World
What is so special about El Morro? To begin with, its long history linked to naval sieges, pirate attacks and sunken ships. Its construction started in 1589 in response to the need of protecting a key port in the trade between the Spanish metropolis and its colonies in the New World. For almost two centuries it did its job as guard of the city, until the British fleet pushed through its coastal defences and took Havana for almost a year.
The British invasion in 1762 set a before-and-after period in the look of El Morro. You can get acquainted with those times in the fortress’ museum by glancing through the weaponry collections dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – a window opened to its military past.
However, most visitors don't seem to be as interested in El Morro’s history as they are on its lighthouse: a tower from which you can see a great part of Havana, and also enjoy magnificent views of the steep cliff and the open sea under your feet: a vertigo-inducing view that can chill your blood.
Watching the sunset while standing over centuries of history
Enjoying one of the most beautiful sunsets in Havana from inside El Morro castle is a nearly- impossible feat because it only opens Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. Even during our short tropical winter season, when the sun begins to sink in the horizon at around 6:20 pm, it's not possible to do it. Nevertheless, watching the sunsets from inside the castle is not the only option, they are equally beautiful to watch from the outside. Facing the castle’s exterior façade, you’ll find an ample esplanade where you can linger to watch the sunset.
During an evening visit to the fortress you should save at least 40 minutes for climbing to the lighthouse. Going up the spiral stone staircase might probably be tiring, but the view through the loopholes and from the banister surrounding the beacon are worth the effort.
Carry some drinking water with you (there is only one cafeteria inside and it’s closed by sunset), and make sure you wear comfortable shoes and clothing. I strongly advise dark-coloured shorts, jeans or trousers for women: there are very narrow parts of the staircase with a very low ceiling and you will need to lean on your hands, so people climbing behind you will get a good view of… Got it?
But don’t be hasty, enjoy the climb and take your time to look through the loopholes and fully absorb the experience. When you arrive at the top, take a deep breath of salty sea-air and bask in the multi-coloured hues of the sky. Taking pictures here is almost mandatory but do keep a close eye, (even better, a tight grip) on whatever you are carrying (handbags, camera, sunglasses), because if you drop any of these, you'd better forget about them.
A fortress to discover
After having completed the staircase climb ritual, there is still 90% of the place to be explored. The vaults for exhibitions are easy to explore, unless you happen to come here in February, during the annually held International Book Fair of Havana, when the place gets crowded by books and visitors. Normally, book fair aside, the tour will only take an hour to complete, and you will have enough time to appreciate its history and the beauty of its architecture.
Reasons not to miss this adventure
The best about visiting El Morro at sunset? Its quietness. It’s rare to find visitors in the fortress during these late evening hours. There are enough places to enjoy privacy and seclusion, alone or in company, however you make it here. It’s a peacefully serene place where the sounds from the city are barely a whisper mixed with the soothing crashing of the waves, and some coastal liturgy prayer.
The entrance fee is not expensive either, because for only $8.00 CUC (about £5.00) you can enter the fortress ($6.00 CUC) and climb up to the lighthouse (for another $2.00 CUC more).
Another charm of El Morro is that inside the fortress there are no vendors to annoy you with their sell cries; yet you will still find them just across from the bridge that goes over the fosse.
My favourite place to see the sun melt in the sea at El Morro - as the waves relentlessly crash on the rocks below and their golden trail travels through the bay- is right in front of the tower, on one of the western walls that looks out to the cliff. This is one of the most romantic places in Havana and one of its best kept secrets.