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The Sanctuary of Atotonilco: Mexico’s Sistine Chapel

Please only travel when and where it’s safe, and follow all local guidelines. Also double-check what's open before your trip.

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, dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”

The site is so extraordinary that visiting it is one of the best 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

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

Dedicated to Jesus, the large church, with several attached chapels, was built in the 18th century.

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

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

But inside the church?

Talk about an explosion of color and art!

The walls and ceilings 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 scenes depicting the life of Christ.

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 in Mexican Baroque style. (The artists painted Spanish conquerors instead of Roman soldiers.)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

A ceiling cupola at the Sanctuary of Atotonilco completely covered in frescoes
A ceiling cupola completely covered in 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 Sanctuary of Atotonilco
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

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.

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

Apart from its fantastic mural work, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco 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.

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

Where is the Sistine Chapel of Mexico located?

The Sanctuary of Atotonilco (Sistine Chapel of Mexico) is located in the small rural community of Atotonilco, some 8.5 miles (14 km) outside the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

See this link to Google maps for the location of the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.

How to visit the Sistine Chapel of Mexico?

You can visit the sanctuary on your own or ask for a guided tour from the San Miguel de Allende tourism office.

Experience more of Mexico!

Read our posts on:

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 25 best things to do in Cabo.

Photo credits: 2 to 7, 9 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase

About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

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

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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.


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!


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.