By Soumya Gayatri
What is the Protective Town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco?
The Protective Town of San Miguel, simply called San Miguel de Allende, is a colonial-era town located in the state of Guanajuato in Central Mexico. It is famous for its beautiful Mexican baroque architecture, narrow cobbled streets lined with colorful mansions, and a vibrant art and culture scene.
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The Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco, known as the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, is an 18th-century church complex that features exquisite Mexican Baroque murals on its ceilings and walls. The murals are so beautiful that the sanctuary is often called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico.
San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. More recently, San Miguel has turned into an expat haven with more than 10% of the city’s population consisting of expats and digital nomads who chose to stay to enjoy the city’s colonial charm.
Why is San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco a UNESCO World Heritage site?
The Spanish founded San Miguel de Allende in the 16th century as a fortified town to safeguard Camino Real de Tierra Adentro or the Royal Route of Interior Land. Camino Real de Tierra Adentro was the 1,600-mile (2,600 km)-long Spanish Silver Route that was used for transporting silver from Mexican silver mines to Europe for more than 300 years.
By the way, both the town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary are part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro UNESCO site as well. So is the Former Royal Hospital of San Juan de Dios, which is in San Miguel.
As silver mining grew, San Miguel prospered, and several religious and public buildings were built in a unique Mexican Baroque architectural style. This included the majestic La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel and the Sanctuary of Jesus Nazareno in Atotonilco. UNESCO describes the Jesuit sanctuary of Atotonilco as “one of the finest examples of Baroque art and architecture in New Spain.”
Because of its location on a trading route, San Miguel also became the meeting place of cultures and therefore, exhibited an important interchange of human values. According to UNESCO, “The town acted as a melting pot where Spaniards, Creoles, and Amerindians exchanged cultural influences, something reflected in the tangible and intangible heritage [of the city].”
What can you expect on a visit to San Miguel de Allende and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco?
A typical San Miguel de Allende itinerary includes visiting impressive gothic and baroque churches dating to the 16th-18th centuries, exploring unique museums, and strolling through the town’s cobbled alleys dotted with colorful mansions.
One of the best places to visit is La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel’s famous parish church that’s known for its pastel pink façade and soaring towers. Overlooking a beautiful central plaza and garden called El Jardin, La Parroquia has now become the symbol of San Miguel de Allende.
The Church of San Francisco with its classic Churrigueresque façade is another beautiful church to visit in San Miguel.
The Sanctuary of Atotonilco is filled with gorgeous murals depicting scenes from the Bible. A local artist named Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre painted them over 30 years in a unique style that fused European and indigenous elements.
Last but not least, do not forget to click a picture or many in San Miguel de Allende’s picturesque alleyways. Aldama Street, with rows of colorful houses and La Parroquia Church flanking an end, is one of San Miguel’s most photographed streets.
Are San Miguel and Atotonilco worth visiting?
Yes, they are both absolutely worth visiting because they give us rich insights into the colonial art and architecture of Mexico. Visiting San Miguel de Allende, which has always been a melting pot of cultures, is key to understanding the evolution of Mexican culture.
What sorts of travelers would like San Miguel de Allende and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco?
Travelers interested in colonial history and the evolution of Mexican art and architecture will love San Miguel and the Sanctuary.
Tips for visiting San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco
San Miguel is hilly and you’ll need to walk around a lot to see the best attractions. So be sure to pack a good pair of walking shoes.
Reserve half a day for visiting the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, located about 10 miles (15km) from the city center of San Miguel. It is not easy to get here by public transport, so get yourself a car or book a tour to explore the Sanctuary of Atotonilco on a day trip from San Miguel. Public transport in San Miguel is almost non-existent and unreliable.
Stay in the city center in a historic mansion for an authentic experience of colonial Mexico. Opt for a hacienda stay if you’re willing to splurge on your holiday. Hacienda El Santuario San Miguel de Allende is a great choice. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options. Use the map below to compare accommodations:
The best time to visit San Miguel and Atotonilco is in winter and spring (November – April) when the weather is pleasant and dry. That’s when it’s best for strolling through the city’s charming streets.
While you’re in Guanajuato state, visit the Historic Town of Guanajuato as well – it’s also a UNESCO site.
Where is San Miguel de Allende?
The town is located in the Central Mexican state of Guanajuato, about 170 miles (270 km) northwest of Mexico City.
Queretaro Airport is the closest to San Miguel. From the airport, you can take a taxi to the city center. But a lot of people visit San Miguel de Allende on a full-day tour from Mexico City. The journey takes around 3.5 hours, one way.
For more information about the Protective Town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco, see the San Miguel de Allende tourism website.
Text and photos provided by Soumya Gayatri of Stories by Soumya. Soumya is a history and culture enthusiast who has traveled to more than 100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Her writings about heritage travel have been published in BBC Travel and Architectural Digest. Through her travel blog, Soumya helps people plan immersive cultural trips around the world.
Have you been to San Miguel de Allende? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!