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Santuario de Atotonilco

Housing the soul of a nation

Hidden among groves of sweet acacia and mesquite trees, and atop the steaming grottos of a natural hot spring, the pristine white walls of Santuario de Atotonilco hide spiritual treasures. 

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This sprawling church complex is known as the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico,” and upon approach its secrets appear to be tightly guarded. Step through its gates, however, and a world of powerful devotion and profound emotion flings open. This towering fortress welcomes multitudes.

This sprawling church complex is known as the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico,” and upon approach, its secrets appear to be tightly guarded.

Santuario de Atotonilco is minutes away from San Miguel de Allende in the tiny village of Atotonilco, which has a population of about 600. The 18th-century structures were built by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who had a vision of Christ and was inspired to found a church here. The surrounding landscape looks much like Jerusalem, and it’s said to have a spiritual connection to the religious capital. The World Heritage Site hosts 5,000 visitors a week, many of whom have mounted sacred pilgrimages from across Mexico.

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In the sanctuary of the church, European and Latin American decorative styles intertwine. There are Mexican folk and Baroque motifs, accents of indigenous art, and Neoclassical altars. We linger at the center of the cavernous space, our eyes wide and our spirits soaring.

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Later, we stroll down the street of the village, which is strung with purple and white banners—colors that evoke royalty and purity. Locals perch along the curb, selling trinkets and memorabilia. We’re drawn to the rosaries, adorned with the Virgin of Guadalupe, guitars, silver crosses and other intricate images. Sleepy dogs lounge in the shade but raise their heads eagerly as we pass.

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We turn a corner, to see a woman hand-stitching a white tablecloth with traditional Otomi embroidery patterns. She tells us that she learned to embroider when she was a little girl, and explains that this tablecloth will take her six months to complete. She’s surrounded by the crafts she makes and sells—shirts, skirts, tortilla warmers, and cushion wraps covered with colorful patterns. It’s as though we’re looking back on a lifetime of woven storytelling.

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The threads she weaves together remind us of the many paths that true believers have taken to reach this place. Atotonilco is the soul of a nation.