Construction of the complex started in 1740 by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro who, according to tradition, was called upon by a vision of Jesus with a crown of thorns on his head and carrying a cross. The main feature, and why you should visit, is the wonderful Mexican Baroque mural work that adorns the main nave and chapels. The paintings have a definite indigenous influence. This was chiefly the work of Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre over a period of thirty years.
The Santuario remains a place of worship and penance to this day, attracting as many as 5,000 visitors every week. Pilgrims come for exercises in flagellation and fasting. During Semana Santa, or Holy Week, it is estimated that 5,000 perform these exercises and wear crowns of thorns on their heads. It is one of 33 weeks out of the year when visitors, mostly from the center and north of the country, visit the Casa de Ejercicios to perform penance. A complete cycle of penance, prayers and meditation lasts eight days.
The paintings are stunning, so I highly recommend making your own pilgrimage to the site. Make sure to wander through the streets surrounding the church where you will see some of the whips for flagellation and crowns of thorns for sale. Very interesting. On my last trip, I was so pleased to be able to tour two chapels, that are normally closed to the public, the Camarin de los Santos Apostles and the Capilla del Calvario, both with amazing statutes and painted ceilings.
Make sure to walk around the small streets near the church. There are a number of vendors selling food, crafts and religious items. You will enjoy the colors and the glimpses of Mexican life.
Keep your eyes open for some of the pilgrims as they arrive into town. The highlight of my last visit was seeing a procession of women from the state of Michoacan.
Once you visit the chapel, we recommend visiting Galeria Atotonilco for wonderful folk art. Just call owner Mayer Shacter for an appointment and then have lunch on the terrace at Nirvana Restaurant and Retreat. I suggest making a reservation as it is popular for lunch.
Though not my thing, the La Gruta hot springs nearby are also enjoyed by many.
I also recently found the casual El Coyote Flaco Restaurante, near Atotonilco. It is a casual restaurant serving good food and wood fired pizzas. They have a full bar and offer music on Sunday afternoons. I went with local friends and enjoyed being outside on a lovely afternoon, listening to music. They are open Wednesday to Sunday. Carretera Santuario Atotonilco KM 2.
Mama Mia Campestre has recently opened near the Sanctuario Atotonilco at Carretera al Santuario de Atotonilco 15 minutes from San Miguel. The restaurant is located in a beautiful setting of an ancient forest of mesquite trees over looking a pong. The tables are scattered throughout the grounds and on a rooftop terrace overlooking the trees and a pond. Many of the dishes including their popular pizzas are cooked in a mesquite wood oven. You can select from a large number of entrees, salads, sides and pizzas. I enjoyed the guacamole, burrata and pear salad and serano ham pizza. There is also a microbrewery on the site, Cerveceria Hechicera with a tasting room. It is a fun place for families as there are a number of activities for children.