While the fortifications of Campeche are collectively more impressive, the Fort San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz is singly the best fortress complex in Mexico and one of the finest in the Gulf of Mexico. Seemingly rising up out of the harbor, Fort San Juan de Ulua was one of the most impregnable fortifications in the New World. As evidence of this, the fort remained a continual Spanish possession for over two and a half centuries, resisting foreign powers and pirates alike, and was the last position to hold out during the Mexican War of Independence. The fortress has recently been restored, and is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations between Mexico City and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Fort San Juan de Ulua was the largest single fortification of the Spanish in Mexico and one of the largest in the New World. It was founded in 1565 to protect Veracruz, the primary port serving the inland capital at Mexico City and one of the most important trading centers in the Americas. Unlike its counterpart at Campeche in the Yucatan, Veracruz and its fort managed to avoid the worst of attacks from rivals and pirate raids throughout the Colonial era.
The one famous exception took place in 1569. In that year, an English fleet led by famed English privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake, was in Veracruz, ostensibly for trade. The English presence was betrayed to the Spanish, who sent their own fleet to Veracruz. Trapped between the Spanish and the guns of the fort, the English were badly defeated. This was one of the few truly major Spanish naval victories during the colonial wars.
Veracruz was one of the most important cities in the Mexican territory of New Spain for the better part of two and a half centuries. However, in 1810, the Mexican War of Independence began. At first the rebels had little success, losing several major battles. But by the 1820s, the tide had turned, and the Spanish were slowly driven out of the entire territory. The war was effectively over in 1821, the city of Veracruz being one of the last places to fall.
However, a Spanish garrison continued to hold the heavily defended island Fort San Juan de Ulua. The fort became a base from which the Spanish made one last ditch effort to retake Mexico. This attempt failed, and in 1825 the fort became the last Spanish possession in Mexico to be surrendered. It was later used as both a presidential residence and as a jail for important political prisoners. Because of its history, Fort San Juan de Ulua is considered one of the definitive symbols of Mexican independence.
Fort San Juan de Ulua is a classic gunpowder-era fortification combining defenses both on and off shore. The outermost bulwark is actually located on the shoreline, and protects the causeway that leads to a larger secondary bulwark which defended the landward side of the fortress. A second larger causeway provides access to the huge main fortress, which stands entirely off shore.
The main fort is a multi-layered, rectangular castle with massive diamond-shaped ramparts. During the colonial era the immense batteries stationed on these walls absolutely commanded the seaward approaches to the city. Now they offer excellent views of the harbor. Two immense round towers were used for centuries as observation posts. Several of the interior buildings were used, for a brief period, as a presidential residence. Most of the fortress buildings now house a museum.
Fort San Juan de Ulua rises up from a bed of coral rock that juts out into the harbor, close to the Veracruz city center. It is accessible by the same series of causeways which once protected its garrison. The fort is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9:00am-5:30pm. The coast of admission is P20. Web: www.sanjuandeulua.com.mx (official website).
Most of western Mexico’s surviving colonial fortresses pale in comparison to the Fort San Juan de Ulua and the Fortifications of Campeche. However, one smaller worthwhile site is the San Carlos Fortress in nearby Perote.
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