Fortaleza Ozama (Ozama Fortress) is the oldest colonial military building in the Western Hemisphere. The fort was built in 1503 on the orders of Nicolás de Ovando, Governor of the entire island of Hispaniola from 1502 to 1509 and mayor of Santo Domingo from 1533 to 1537. Ovando personally selected the site for its strategic location on the Ozama River.
Fortaleza Ozama is one of several forts built along Santo Domingo’s colonial zone perimeter to protect the city from attacks by land and by sea. From its vantage point on a steep cliff overlooking the river, the fort enabled the armed forces to defend and safeguard the city from attacks from the Ozama River, the Caribbean Sea and the harbor. The fort’s defenses were never successfully breached.
Although the fort has undergone many changes over the centuries, it remains the oldest standing military complex in the Americas. The walled complex includes an impressive 18.5 meter-high (61 ft) Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Homage) with 2m-thick walls (6 ½ ft). The Tower of Vigilance at the top of the Torre del Homenaje provides a view of the Ozama River and the Caribbean coast.
The tower, which looks a lot like a Spanish medieval castle, was the tallest building in the city during the colonial period. The flags of all nations that militarily occupied the Dominican Republic flew over the Tower between 1503 and 1925.
The fort served as a prison and military garrison until the 1960s and is known to have housed many high profile political prisoners. Juan Pablo Duarte, The Father of the Country, was imprisoned in the tower’s dungeon during the Haitian 22-year occupation of Santo Domingo.
Juan Emilio Bosch Gaviño and Jacinto Bienvenido Peynado, both presidents of the Dominican Republic and José Francisco Peña Gómez Peña, mayor of Santo Domingo and a three-time Dominican presidential candidate were all imprisoned at the fort.
Another high profile prisoner was Minerva Mirabal, of the famous Mirabal Sisters, leaders of the Movimiento 14 de Junio. The Movement of the Fourteenth of June fought to free the Dominican Republic from the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.
In addition to the Tower of Homage and the prison, the Fortaleza Ozama complex also includes two shooting platforms, the armory where arsenal was stored, the original sentry house, the old Army barracks, and much more.
At the main gate of the fort is a bronze statue of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, fort commander from 1533 to 1557. It is said that he died at the entrance while still holding the keys in his hand.
Oviedo, educated in the court of King Ferdinand, was a man of many talents but is probably best remembered as a military historian who chronicled the Natural and General History of the Indies, one of the few primary sources of events of the earliest days in the New World.
The statue of Oviedo was a gift from King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia on their first visit to Santo Domingo in 1976.
Don Diego Columbus and his wife Doña María de Toledo lived on the second floor of the guardian’s cottage when they first arrived in Santo Domingo. Their servants lived on the first floor.
If you climb to the Tower of Vigilance, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the city. Even on the hottest days, the climb is reasonably comfortable due to the thickness of the walls. The rooftop is an ideal place to view the Caribbean sunset.