There’s not much more to the hamlet of Atotonilco than a few dusty streets. It’s an indigenous rural community that will have you thinking you’ve stepped back in time. This is the home to a precious little church known as Santuario de Atotonilco. It houses some of the best examples of frescoes in the country, and has been dubbed as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico.
The interior walls and ceilings are almost completely covered in mural work, inscriptions and oil paintings.The paintings are interpreted scenes from the bible that have been painted in great detail. Some of them are rather gruesome images of people bleeding, being tortured and dying.
This is one of the most important religious sites in central Mexico. Each year over two million devout Christians make pilgrimages to the tiny town. They come from all over the country to pray and meditate.
The church also holds a great importance in Mexico’s political history. On September 16, 1810 Miguel Hidalgo removed an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the wall and affixed it to a spear. He used it as a banner in his fight for Mexican Independence. From there it was marched to San Miguel.
There are several thermal springs in the area. One of most notable ones has been made into a spa called Balneario La Gruta. The high humidity caused from the underground springs along with years of neglect caused deterioration to the church and it’s murals. Since being deemed as endangered by the World Monuments fund in 1996 the building and murals have been restored. It was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008.
On Sundays the lonely little town is transformed with a market with vendors offering prepared food and the usual market wares. There are many religious items being sold such as rosaries and incense.
Atotonilco is just 14 kms outside of San Miguel. The local bus to look for in San Miguel is marked “Santuario.” It leaves frequently from Calzada de la Luz behind the market. It will take you past the entrance to the La Gruta thermal springs and then to the village of Atotonilco. The bus is dirt cheap, it cost us less than a dollar. If you prefer, a taxi is quite reasonable as well. Give the driver a time to come and pick you back up.