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Visit the Sanctuary of Atotonilco: Mexico’s Sistine Chapel

Drive just 15-minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and you come to a remarkable Jesuit sanctuary.

It’s the Sanctuary of Atotonilco (El Santuario de Atotonilco), dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”

The site is so extraordinary that visiting it is one of the most interesting things to do in Mexico, especially if you love history, architecture and culture.

Sanctuary of Atotonilco fresco showing an indigenous Mexican with a crown on his head
A fresco inside the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, showing an Indigenous Mexican with a crown on his head

The Sanctuary of Atotonilco, Mexico

Thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Atotonilco each year.
The ceiling depicts the story of Jesus’ life and death

The large church was built in the 18th century by Father Luis Felipe Neri De Alfaro.

Born in Mexico City, he traveled in 1740 to what is now Atotonilco (which means “Place of the Hot Waters” because of the nearby hot springs).

Here, under a mesquite tree, he had a vision of Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, who told him to build a shrine where people could pray and do penance for their sins.

The church, which is dedicated to the life of Jesus, is also known as the Sanctuary of Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco. It has six attached chapels.

The plain exterior of the Sanctuary of Atotonilco belies the psychedelic interior.
The plain exterior belies the sanctuary’s psychedelic interior

On the outside, the white church complex is quite plain.

But inside?

Talk about an explosion of color and art!

The walls and ceilings of the main nave and chapels are almost completely decorated with oil paintings, poems, sculptures and frescoes in riotous colors (vivid blues, reds, green and black).

You see mythical creatures, flowers, gilded baroque virgins, horned devils, red-robed priests and biblical figures.

They’re mostly scenes depicting pivotal moments in the life of Christ – from his baptism by John the Baptist to the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection outside the tomb.

It's a riot of color and art forms inside the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.
A riot of color and art forms

Local Indian artists Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre and Rodriguez Juárez painted the murals over a period of 30 years.

They did the mural paintings in a rich Mexican Baroque style. And in an intriguing twist, instead of painting Roman soldiers, they painted Spanish conquerors.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Pretty well every square inch of the Atotonilco ceiling cupolas and walls are covered in amazing frescoes
Pretty well every square inch of the ceiling cupolas and walls are covered in amazing frescoes

We visited the sanctuary with Italian architect Roberto Burillo Eguia Lis.

In 1996, at the instigation of Roberto and his partner, the World Monuments Fund added the sanctuary to its list of “100 Most Endangered Monuments.”

With seed money from American Express and more than $100,000 US from the state of Guanajuato (home to Guanajuato’s unique mummy museum), the building’s facade and murals were inspected, analyzed and cleaned – and restoration work was started.

An arched doorway leads into a small chapel in the Atotonilco sanctuary.
An arched doorway leads into a small chapel

In July, 2008, as a result of the efforts of Roberto and his partner, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Images are still being authentically restored under Roberto’s guidance, retaining their centuries-old character.

We’re restoring in a way that doesn’t kill the ghosts,” Roberto explained as he showed us around.

We also heard pilgrims singing hymns and saw Mexican nuns washing the altars.

A nun sweeps the floor in front of the altar at the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.
A nun sweeps the floor in front of the altar

A place of worship and pilgrimage

After, we wandered around the little souvenir stands outside selling corn whips.

Pilgrims still come from central Mexico and self-flagellate with corn whips,” said Roberto.

The town here is totally authentic and nothing has changed in 300 years.

The Church of Atotonilco is especially popular with visiting pilgrims during Holy Week, when adherents engage in fasting, prayer and self-flagellation as part of their devout practices.

Interior of Atotonilco chapel
Thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Atotonilco each year

Historical connection to independence from Spain

Apart from its fantastic mural work, the Atotonilco church complex is also noteworthy from an historical perspective.

It was from this church that heroic Father Miguel Hidalgo galloped off to San Miguel de Allende in 1810, starting the revolt that ultimately led to Mexico’s independence from Spain.

Also, Ignacio Allende, a Mexican general and Hidalgo’s co-revolutionary, got married in the church in 1802, eight years before the first uprising for independence took place.

Where is the Sistine Chapel of Mexico located?

The Santuario Atotonilco (Sistine Chapel of Mexico) is located in the small rural community of Atotonilco, some 8½ miles (14 km) outside the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

See this link to Google maps for its location.

So plain outside, yet the Sanctuary of Atotonilco is so decorative and beautiful inside.
It’s so plain outside, yet the Sanctuary of Atotonilco is so decorative and beautiful inside

How to visit the Sistine Chapel of Mexico

If you’ve rented a car for your trip, you can visit the village of Atotonilco and sanctuary on your own.

Guided tours of this famous church outside of San Miguel de Allende are also available.

This 3-hour driving tour is highly recommended. It begins with a driving tour of San Miguel de Allende and ends with a visit to see the beautiful frescoes at the Atotonilco sanctuary.

Alternatively, you might like this top-rated private tour of both the Atotonilco santuario and the historic town of nearby Dolores Hidalgo.

You can also ask for a guided tour from the San Miguel de Allende tourism office.

Experience more of Mexico!

Mexican colonial cities: Discover the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico!

Mexican fruit: Have you heard of the chocolate pudding fruit? No? Well, discover 17 delicious and exotic types of fruit in Mexico you should try.

Cabo San Lucas: From whale watching to golf, check out the top things to do in Cabo.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

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Photo credits: 2 to 6, 8 to 10 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

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Linda Bibb

Monday 3rd of November 2014

Oh, my goodness, what a beautiful church! It's no surprise that it's on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Actually, we try to make it a point to visit any UNESCO sites that are nearby because they are always interesting ... and make for wonderful photos!

Jenn Smith Nelson

Monday 3rd of November 2014

Wow, so much more ornate than I would have expected! Beautiful.

Emily

Saturday 1st of November 2014

Wow - that church looks nothing like the churches I remember visiting in Mexico! How beautiful - I will need to make my way there sometime.

Janice and George

Saturday 1st of November 2014

San Miguel de Allende is a fairytale town (we'll be writing a post about it soon, so stay tuned for that...). And the Sanctuary of Atotonilco is one of its top attractions. We hope you find your way there at some point in future :-).

Irene S. Levine, PhD

Wednesday 29th of October 2014

We stopped there briefly. Your photos are incredible!

Shikha

Monday 27th of October 2014

Those frescoes and sculptures are just absolutely stunning! Isn't it fabulous when a place looks quite plain from the outside and then just takes you completely by surprise inside - I found the same thing in a couple of churches in Bavaria, Germany last winter that were just plain white and simple outside and absolutely gorgeous frescoes inside :)

Janice and George

Monday 27th of October 2014

Yes, it was a real surprise driving up to the church. This is Mexico's "Sistine Chapel"? We also thought there would be more visitors there, but there only perhaps a couple of other tourists that wandered through during our visit.