Home Feature Backstage Pass – Atotonilco

Backstage Pass – Atotonilco

by sanmigueltimes
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On a recent Saturday I was doing what I do, taking two vans full of Texans on a tour of the Silver Route, cloistered monastery and Atotonilco.  When we pulled in Atotonilco my point of contact uttered “I’ve a pal meeting us here, do you mind he chats first for about thirty minutes?”  Of course I don’t mind, I really like learning new stuff from new people.

Well, the lad, Luis, was young and knew local art history in ways that rivaled my own knowledge.  Plus Luis has talent and can actually both create and repair art.  I was in awe and began a visit to Atotonilco unlike any other.  I felt like one of the kids that won the golden ticket to visit Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

I knew Luis was in like Flynn when he started chatting in the main chapel.  I never speak in there as the nuns and caretakers make it painfully aware the only noise that gets made there is distant chanting or close by wailing.  Neither of which I’m any good at.

a luis house3

Then Luis whips out keys to let us in a back room to the right of the altar.  First thing I notice upon entering is a nun with a Cosco sized can of Pledge and I’m immediately thrust back to high school thinking “Sister is going to see us in here and whack me with her Pledge can.”

But no, we didn’t warrant a passing eye contact.  Instead I could view the ancient art that depicted the life of Felipe Neri Alfaro, the priest that built the church along with paintings of other Virgins and saints.

Next we stepped into a small circular room behind the altar lined with the apostles.  Above each of them was an image depicting their death (no dying in their sleep, or peaceful drowning, for these guys.  Each death is more gruesome than the next’s)  Above all that, in the dome, are folks in Heaven including the various levels of angels.

The one apostle missing is Peter whom, since he betrayed Jesus, was taken out and burned at some point.  The statue of Judas Iscariot must have been sweating bullets that day!

I knew the story well of the founding priest taking a nap under a mesquite tree and being told in a dream by Jesus to build a church.  I didn’t realize the tree once grew in the center of the altar where a statue of Jesus now resides.

Another side altar featured angels that once flew above the altar and frescos of the founding father’s parents.

This is where I learned that over the years of retreats and pilgrimages folks liked to pilfer a relic or image to take home.  So from about my chest level down are empty frames where relics and art once hung.  Visiting Mexicans, not really being known for their height, couldn’t reach the remaining, higher up, images.

Then like a dumbstruck child in an immense toy store, we gamboled to the other side of the main altar to the back area of the chapel to Our Lady of Lareto.  This small room once held the clothes for the statue of the Virgin and, again, featured murals telling the story of how she moved her home from the Middle East to Lareto, Italy.

a tunnel

Next came a larger, no longer used chapel followed by another that reminded me of the Island of Misfit Toys as here resided statues and art in various states of decay.  Since the whole church was built on top of hot springs (to keep the local Otomis from worshipping their old gods through sexual acts in the hot springs) the hot water now travels up the church’s walls and floors.  This humidity causes the lace like paint work to decay and nearly any art that touches a wall or floor to be held together by the sheer force of memory.  Touching anything would likely turn the art to dust.

Next we went up to the choir loft to see the ceiling images closer up and where the organ has scary faces to prevent you from ever hitting a wrong note and provoking their ire.

Next to it is a small room the founder used to whip himself under the belief that pain and suffering brings you closer to God.  On the rare occasion I’ve met someone who does self flagellate they insist you get numb to the pain the experience is similar to taking LSD as you are in an alternate reality.  Personally, I don’t understand why not just take LSD and avoid the painful middle man.

On the walls of his cell is a fascinating image of a disrobed man surrounded by a listing of the seven deadly sins.  The priest felt the seven weren’t enough and added an eighth, gossip.  The man baffles me on two counts; why a nude man with the sins and why is he beefy, tall, curly haired and white whereas the founder and local Otomi men looked nothing like that.

I was pondering the mystery when invited up to the rooftop to see the bells and art up there.  Again, a cat with catnip isn’t as happy as I was.

a rooftop

Later that day I went to the guide’s, Luis’, home where he has amassed the largest personal collection of ancient religious art I have ever seen.  Virgins, saints, milagros, crowns, paintings and folk art grace two rooms in a stunning display I could spend weeks absorbing and trying to understand what was being communicated.

That same afternoon I got to explore one of the tunnels under Atotonilco containing a femur and jaw of a long time ago resident wooly mammoth and watched my TripAdvisor site leap to the town’s third slot for tours (behind food and horse tours which isn’t what I do, but still it fun to be in the top 3).  It was a magical day from start to finish I could never appreciate enough.

By Joseph Toone



Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series.  All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays.  Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA.  Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkingTours.com, and JosephTooneTours.com.


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