Fortaleza Ozama (Ozama Fortress) – Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic - Atlas Obscura

Fortaleza Ozama (Ozama Fortress)

The oldest colonial fortress in the Americas was once the home and later prison of Christopher Columbus. 


Fortaleza Ozama is an imposing fortress located in the old city within Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Built as a defense against native rebellions as well as foreign invasions, the fortress has been resilient to time, having outlasted numerous nations and governments who have used it as a symbol of their ultimate authority.

Built in 1502, Fortaleza Ozama, named after nearby Ozama River, is considered to be the oldest fortress of European design in the New World. Spanish colonizers used Taino and African enslaved people to build the fortress using local coral stone. The walls are almost 10 feet (three meters) thick, making the fortress nearly impervious.

In addition to being a military base, the fortress was home to the viceroys of Santo Domingo. The most well-known of these viceroys was Christopher Columbus who, along with his family, lived in Fortaleza Ozama during his tenuous reign. So corrupt and tyrannical was Columbus that even the imperial Spanish government judged him unfit to govern and had him jailed in the very fortress he called home. After he was dismissed, Columbus never returned to the building.

The tumultuous history of the island would see the fortress exchanged between various countries including England, France, Haiti, the former Gran Colombia, and the United States. It proved to be so well-constructed that it was still used as a prison well into the 20th century. During the draconian rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo, Fortaleza Ozama was where countless political prisoners were detained and tortured.

After much-needed national reforms, Fortaleza Ozama closed as a prison in the late ’60s. No longer a symbol of oppression and war, it is now a national landmark where visitors can enjoy the splendor of the island. Visitors can climb la Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Homage), once used to look out for pirate ships, and enjoy a beautiful 360-degree-view of Santo Domingo. 

Know Before You Go

Visitors can enter Fortaleza Ozama from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, Fortaleza Ozama closes at 4 p.m.

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