Although it has a hot spring resort like those found throughout the region, Atotonilco has traditionally attracted a different sort of visitor. This marvelous 18th-century church receives more than 60,000 pilgrims each year. They come individually from nearby Bajío towns and by busloads for weeklong retreats to worship at el Santuario de Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco.
The busiest time of year is Easter through the end of summer vacations, in August. The church has basic lodgings; severe-looking nuns sell tacos and tamales as well as key chains and refrigerator magnets bearing the likeness of Jesus of Nazareth: patron saint of the church and town. Equally revered is Our Lord of the Column; the icon, found on the right side of the nave, is taken on parade during semana santa (Easter) celebrations.
On a recent mid-week visit we found few pilgrims, but a tribe of busy workmen. Having received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008, this large and important church is being restored inside and out. According to UNESCO's website: "The Sanctuary of Atotonilco is an outstanding example of a specific religious settlement, containing exceptional decoration that makes it a masterpiece of Mexican Baroque."
The church's interior is covered in frescoes painted over a period of 30 years by native son Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre. Among its over-the-top baroque decorations in muted blues and pinks are poems admonishing pilgrims of various vices and virtues, Spanish conquerors dressed for battle, and devils fighting to carry off slothful souls.
Approximately halfway between Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende, Atotonilco can be reached by car or bus from either city. Take a bus marked "Atotonilco" or, if you don't mind walking, a Dolores' San Miguel de Allende bus, alighting at El Cortijo and walking several kilometers in from the highway. About halfway to tiny Atotonilco (population, about 500), the Atotonilco el Viejo thermal spring (www.atotonilcoelviejo.com) offers guest rooms, massage, a large spring-fed swimming pool, and a pleasant restaurant.