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 Cabo San Juan (Fajardo), PR    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.
Description: Fray Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra arrived in Puerto Rico in 1772 at the age of 26 as the secretary and confessor of Bishop Manuel Jiménez Pérez. During the next eleven years, he visited much of the island and surrounding region and later published the first comprehensive history of Puerto Rico. In his book, he noted the importance of the Cabezas de San Juan (San Juan Headlands), for mariners navigating the eastern shore of Puerto Rico. “The mountain peaks of Luquillo and Laivonito … can be seen from a far off distance in the sea, and through them sailors recognize Cabezas de San Juan, the reference point of those who regularly navigate by these islands towards the Honduras and Mexico Gulf.”

Spain formed the Central Lighthouse Commission in 1861 to develop a comprehensive lighthouse plan for Puerto Rico. The commission was instructed to consider the “economic and artistic point of view,” when selecting sites and plans for lighthouses, and in 1869 it came up with a list of fourteen light stations to mark the islands of Puerto Rico. Due to the Cuba Ten Year War (1868-1878), funds for the stations were not made available until 1875, when construction was approved for four lighthouses, one of which was Cabo San Juan.

Early view of Cabo San Juan Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Budgetary problems again delayed the start of work, and it wasn’t until 1881 that construction began on the Cabo San Juan Lighthouse. When its beacon was finally lit on May 2, 1882, the lighthouse became the second lighthouse to mark the Puerto Rican coast – Puerto San Juan Lighthouse being the first.

Located on a high promontory near the end of a peninsula, the Cabo San Juan Lighthouse was isolated from the mainland due to a large lagoon and surrounding marshes to the south. Just east of the lighthouse, lie a string of keys. Perhaps the danger these small islands presented to mariners is reflected in some of their interesting names: Wolf, Devil, Cockroaches, and Mice.

The Cabo San Juan Lighthouse consists of a one-story dwelling, measuring 98’x 41’, with a 45-foot-tall, cylindrical tower attached midway along one side of the dwelling. The entrance to the dwelling is on the side opposite the tower and, after passing through a portico, leads inside to a vestibule. On the left and right side of the vestibule were doors that opened into identical five-room apartments for the keepers. The five rooms consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen/dining room, a bathroom, and a living room. Walking straight through the vestibule, one would find two rooms just before the eight steps that led up to the tower entrance. On the left was a storeroom, while an engineering room was on the right. A spiral, brick stairway in the storeroom led to a circular oil room with a vaulted roof positioned beneath the tower. Each of the rooms in the dwelling was provided with a single, exterior, double-pane casement, except for the corner rooms, which had two such windows. The lighthouse was originally painted white with dark gray trimmings, and green doors and windows.

An elaborate cast-iron spiral staircase leads up the tower to the lantern room. Midway up the tower, a window opens towards the sea while a double door provides access to the dwelling’s roof. The lantern room is circular and originally housed a third-order lens of Sautter, Lemonnier & Cie design. The lens was equipped with six flash panels and revolved once every nine minutes, producing alternating red and white flashes. A drop tube, located in the east side of the tower, contained a 254-pound weight connected by a metal cable running over two pulleys to a clockwork mechanism that controlled the revolution of the lens. In 1916, the original lens was evidently replaced with a fourth-order, Fresnel lens. This photograph is of the lens in the tower in 1978.

Thirty-five sailors and marines, from the monitor Amphitrite and under the command of Lieutenant Charles Nelson Atwater, boarded two small boats and rowed ashore to take control of the Cabo San Juan Lighthouse on August 6 of 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Naval Cadet Boardman was sent ahead with three men and found the lighthouse unoccupied. Boardman directed his men to take off their weapons prior to climbing the tower. While one of the men was removing his gun belt, a revolver slipped from its holster, landed on the marble floor, and went off, wounding Boardman in his thigh. Lieutenant Atwater had Boardman transported back to the Amphitrite, where he later died from the wound, then relit the light in the tower and started to fortify the lighthouse against an attack. Windows were barricaded, sentries posted, and a Colt gun installed atop the lighthouse.

The nearby town of Fajardo had been occupied by U.S. naval forces earlier in the war, but upon their withdrawal Spanish troops raided the town, and an attack on the lighthouse by these soldiers was now feared. Just before dark on August 8, reports were received that a Spanish force numbering several hundred was advancing to take the lighthouse. At about midnight, gunfire erupted at the lighthouse when Spanish forces were spotted in the surrounding brush. Atwater had the light extinguished as an indication of an attack, and U.S. ships, aided by searchlights from the U.S.S. Cincinnati, commenced shelling the slope of the hill on which the lighthouse stands. An errant six-pounder shell fired by one of the ships struck the roof of the lighthouse, within a few feet of two U.S. soldiers, but did not explode. The Americans retained control of the lighthouse without a single casualty, but withdrew the next day as the advantage of holding the hilltop location seemed slight. A Spanish lieutenant and four privates were believed killed during the skirmish.

Lieutenant Atwater gave the following description of the structure.

The lighthouse is a brick structure 100 by 40 feet, inside measurement, with walls 2 feet thick, evidently built for military defense. There is little woodwork about except the doors and windows. These are furnished with heavy shutters, instead of frames of glass, and have ordinary slat blinds outside of them. The shutters when closed are secured with iron diagonal braces. The floor is marble tile, the roof beams and girders iron, and the roof floor brick. There is only one lofty story and no cellar. The front is commanded by a slightly raised central portico, with loopholes in the parapet. Opposite the portico the lighthouse tower abuts against the rear wall, and a circular gallery just under the light is loopholed. The light tower is about twice as high from the ground as the roof, and can only be entered from the ground floor or the roof. Two-foot brick parapet walls, about 2 ½ feet high, subdivide the roof. The window sills are 5 or 6 feet above the ground.

The light is 265 feet above the sea on the summit of a steep hill, which commands the four lower hills and the distant land approaches across a low neck half a mile south. The four lower hills are near to the northward and westward, and the five make up a small promontory on which it is difficult to land boats on account of the shallow water over coral reefs. The land drops away from the lighthouse immediately and on all sides. Fifty feet from the building is a barbed-wire fence. Around this and from 50 to 200 yards from it is another barbed-wire fence and a low hedge. Beyond all is rugged hillside, covered densely with high brush and creepers and traversed by rough paths, except west, where there is a pasture commanded by the lighthouse. The lighthouse inclosures are cleared except of a few low bushes and cactus hedges.

On the night of September 26-27, 1932, a terrific hurricane devastated approximately half of Puerto Rico. Known locally as “San Ciprián” after the saint’s day on which it occurred, the hurricane caused roughly $15 million in structural damage, and killed over 200 people, 13,000 pigs, and almost 450,000 poultry. The lens and lantern room were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm and were replaced by a Westinghouse four-way revolving beacon.

The interior of the dwelling was significantly altered around 1950, when modern bathrooms and kitchens were installed, but much of the historic fixtures, including original woodwork, the gray and white Genoa marble flooring slabs, and the fancy staircase, were retained.

321 acres on the San Juan Headlands, containing three head-like promontories that extend from the mainland into the Atlantic Ocean, were acquired by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico in 1975, rescuing this site of immense ecological importance from a proposed resort development. In 1989, the Trust conducted extensive research to guarantee the authenticity of all planned restoration work on the lighthouse, which is located on the highest point in the reserve. Using nineteenth-century techniques, the original windows, doors, structural and decorative woodwork, and walls were restored to their original finishes and colors. The Trust received the American Express Preservation Award in 1991 for its restoration of the Cabo San Juan Lighthouse, which today is the best-preserved lighthouse in Puerto Rico.

Cabo San Juan Lighthouse was made available to qualified organizations in 2006 under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, but the outcome of the review process has not be announced.

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. “Faro de las Cabezas de San Juan,” Kevin Murphy, Historic American Engineering Record, August, 1984.
  2. “The Lighthouses of Puerto Rico Part I,” Wayne C. Wheeler, The Keeper’s Log, Spring, 1991.

Location: Located in Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve on the northeast tip of the main island of Puerto Rico.
Latitude: 18.38136
Longitude: -65.6182

For a larger map of Cabo San Juan (Fajardo) Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Cabo San Juan Lighthouse is located within the Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. Trolley tours of the reserve are offered Wednesday through Sunday, excluding holidays. Tours are at 9:30, 10, 10:30 a.m., and 2 p.m. For reservations, call the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico at (787) 722-5882 (weekdays) or (787) 860-2560 (weekends), or you can make online reservations for what is labeled the "Meet Las Cabezas de San Juan." You can also take a nighttime tour of the reserve to witness the operation of the lighthouse and experience the phenomenon of bioluminescence in Laguna Grande.

From Highway 3 just west of Fajardo, take Route 194 (Avenida Valero) into Fajardo. After 2 km (1.3 miles), turn left onto Avenue El Conquistador and stay on this street until it ends at Route 987 after 3.7 km (2.3 miles) near Hotel El Conquistador. Turn left onto Route 987, Cabezas Road, and follow it for 2.1 km (1.3 miles) until you reach the reserve.

The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower open during tours.

Find the closest hotels to Cabo San Juan (Fajardo) Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
To visit the Cabo San Juan Lighthouse you must make a reservation for a tour of Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. We took the 2 p.m. tour as that is the only one offered in English. All the English speakers were loaded in one bus, while the other two vehicles that departed at the same time appeared to be Spanish-speaking tours. The tour of the reserve makes three stops, and our vehicle’s first stop was at the lighthouse, where we had a few minutes to view the grounds before being given a guided tour of the interior.

The tour focused on the interesting biology of the reserve, but unfortunately didn’t provide any history of the lighthouse or its keepers. As you pass through the portico and enter the lighthouse, your first view is of the amazing original marble floor, the interesting beams supporting the roof, and a manatee skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Two rooms in the lighthouse have an aquarium exhibiting marine life and a touch tank where members of our group were allowed to hold a sea cucumber. Next, we were escorted into a room with covered windows so we could witness the bioluminescent dinoflagellates that live in Laguna Grande, just down the hill from the lighthouse. As these organisms only emit light when disturbed, our guide lightly massaged a pair of bags containing the organisms suspended in seawater to demonstrate this amazing effect. The last portion of the lighthouse tour took us past some original doors with decorative openings above them and up the spiral stairway to the roof, where we enjoyed a spectacular view. To the north and east, you can see several small islands that are popular spots for day trips from nearby resorts, and to the south is Laguna Grande, with the town of Fajardo beyond it.

The night before, my parents and I had taken a glass-bottom kayak tour that started in the ocean and proceeded up a small creek to reach Laguna Grande. The bioluminescence is best observed in total darkness, so I was a bit concerned when our trip fell on the night of a full moon, but lucky for us the moon didn’t rise until our tour was almost over so we had plenty of darkness. Our guides affixed glow sticks to the bow and stern of each of the two-person kayaks to help us stay together as we navigated up the mangrove-lined creek. Upon entering the lagoon, the water disturbed by our paddles glowed a faint blue, and I could see thousands of points of light passing beneath my glass-bottom kayak. I scooped up a handful of water, and it seemed like I was holding a small galaxy in my hand. Our guides took us to a shallow portion of the lagoon and smacked the water with their paddles, which sent fish darting about in all directions creating bright streaks of light in the water. The nature reserve offers a nighttime tour that allows visitors a chance to see the lighthouse in action and witness the bioluminescence from the shore. I would recommend the kayak trip, but any kind of trip to a bioluminescent lagoon at night is definitely a must do in Puerto Rico.

The other two stops on our daytime tour of the reserve were at the beach, where we saw coral and shells that had washed ashore, and at the mangrove forest at the edge of the lagoon, where we learned about the unique adaptations that allow the trees to survive in saltwater.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.