by Barbara Mauldin
The plaza in Atotonilco, a town a few
kilometers north of San Miguel de Allende, is much like any other plaza found in small towns throughout Mexico. The village church looms at one side of the plaza and archways that look as if they might collapse at any moment line the opposite end. A store sits on the other side, ready to provide the townspeople with frivolous snacks and food staples. Children play along the edges of the plaza while their elders walk in and out of the church or sell key chains, crosses, and gorditas at the curbside stands.
It is the church that makes Atotonilco different, as the Santuario de Atotonilco is a destination for international visitors as well as thousands from all over Mexico. Built as a religious retreat in 1740 by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, the temple first gained fame as the site of Ignacio Allende's wedding in 1802. A few years later, in 1810, Allende and Miguel Hidalgo used the Santuario as a hideout on their way from Dolores to San Miguel during their quest for Mexican independence. While taking sanctuary within the religious confines, Hidalgo grabbed the church banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to use as the symbol for his crusade.
Though situated in an obscure area of the Bajio region where San Miguel de Allende is located, the sanctuary draws visitors from all over the country. Many make long journeys to visit the shrine for religious purposes and others come for the storied history it represents. From the outside, the church is almost drab, with its
simple and unpretentious fac;ade.
However, the inside is adomed with gold sparkles along the walls and niches. The church's statuary is especially colorful and well-preserved, in sharp contrast with the smoothly wom floors and pews which bear indentations from centuries of worship.
Bright and energetic frescoes once used to teach biblical stories to the indigenous line the Santuario 's walls. Resting in a pew, one can envision page after page of Mexican history that is represented in the Santuario, from the religious conquest to
the heroic quests for freedom.
Since the church draws so many
visitors, it is also a prime location for vendors to sell their wares. On weekends during spring and surnmer people from all over the Bajio and neighboring areas set up stalls to sell an array of goods. As Easter approaches vendors become busier and the stalls more varied.
During cuaresma, or Lent, the Santuario and its connection to San Miguel de Allende takes on even greater significance. Two weeks before Easter, the heavy and handsome statue of El Señor de la Columna is carried on foot from his resting place in the church in Atotonilco to the temple of San Juan de Dios in San Miguel de Allende. During his vacation in San Miguel, the idol becomes the primum mobile of processions and religious fervor.
To reach Atotonilco, drive north of San Miguel toward Dolores Hidalgo. Ten kilometers (six miles) after leaving town start watching for signs pointing to the left saying Atotonilco. A short, winding drive will take you into the town plaza. Thermal springs called El Gruto, Cortijo, and Escondido are nearby where you can add a relaxing mineral bath to your excursion.