Mexico: Pilgrimage Towns

by Chris on October 22, 2009

A visit to the Mexican pilgrimage towns of San Juan de los Lagos and Atotonilco

Faithful in Catedral , San Juan de los Lagos church, MexicoMy recent trip to Mexico encompassed several towns that are known for their religious fervor, including San Juan de los Lagos and Atotonilco.

Virgin, San Juan de los Lagos church, Mexico

San Juan de los Lagos, about two hours outside Guadalajara, is famous for its Virgin – one of three in Mexico that rank just behind the Virgin of Guadalupe. (The other two are the Virgin of Talpa and the Virgin of Zapopan – to read about Romeria, the religious festival I witnessed in Zapopan for their “Lady,” click here).

Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos church, Mexico

Each has their own legend; while the Virgin of Zapopan keeps Guadalajara safe, the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos (named for St. John the Baptist) allegedly restored a dead child to life.

Catedral Basilica Virgen San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico

The town centers around the Catedral Basilica Santuario de la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, a large pinkish church.

Vendors outside San Juan de los Lagos church, Mexico

The plaza outside the Catedral is filled with vendors selling all sorts of Virgin paraphenalia, from rosaries to icons to tablecloths. An estimated million people visit the Virgin in San Juan de los Lagos each year.

San Juan de los Lagos church, Mexico

Inside the church, worshippers drop to their knees to “walk” down the church aisle toward the altar housing the Virgin. I first saw this demonstation of faith at the Scala Santa in Rome earlier this year. It can be a little heartbreaking to watch the elderly struggle down the long aisle. But for the faithful, the suffering is considered “Christ-like;” they suffer for what they see as in solidarity with Jesus.

Santuario de Atononilco, Mexico

Walking on your knees is nothing , however, compared to the devotions that take place at Atotonilco, a small dusty town between Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. There, pilgrims come from all over Mexico to visit Santuario de Atotonilco, a beautiful church and a spiritual retreat, and ask for penance by donning crowns of mesquite thorns and flagellate themselves with seven-tailed whips. There are cells nearby where pilgrims sleep to replicate Christ’s prison experience.

Whips, Atononilco, Mexico

On the day we were there, we saw no such displays of devotion. The vendors in the sleepy plaza, though, were selling the thorn crowns, as well as rope whips.

Crown of thorns, Atonolcio, Mexico

The thorns were sharp (I had to touch them, of course).

Santuario de Atononilco, Mexico

The church itself was worth seeing. While it looks simple on the outside, the inside is completely covered in frescoes, many of which are under restoration. There is no surface in the building that hasn’t been decorated or covered.

Frescos, Atotonilco, Mexico

The paintings were done by an artist named Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, in a style that’s been called “folk baroque.” They were declared “endangered” by the World Monument Fund in the late 1990s and have been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008.

Our Lord of the Column, Atotonilco, Mexico

True to the leanings of the pilgrims who come here, some of the paintings are a little on the dark side, stressing Christ’s suffering. This statue of the bloody Christ is known as Our Lord of the Column. During Holy Week, it is taken from the church and carried in a midnight procession to San Miguel de Allende, where it remains through Easter.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Carole Terwilliger Meyers October 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm

These two pilgrimage sites are well worth a visit and are convenient stops on the way from Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende. I found the alcove to the right of the altar in The Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos especially interesting–it is where pilgrims place letters and objects that thank the Virgin for their personal miracles.


Chris October 25, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Carole – I must have missed that alcove. Definitely worth checking out. Thanks for contributing!


Dot October 25, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Beautiful, informative photos ~~ thanks!

This shrine in Texas is to the same representation of the Virgin:

I hope you’ll think of contacting me when you come to Oaxaca. You can fill me in on how N.O. was when you lived there. I lived there from ’70 – ’83.


Judy Wells November 23, 2009 at 10:06 am

Chris – I’m loving your posts. At Santuario de Atotonilco I found it so interesting – and sad – that we were more comfortable interacting with the cat outside than the old woman silently begging for pesos.


Jo Austin December 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

How far is Atotonilco from Guadalajara?? How long would it take to get there??


Chris December 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Jo – I would say that it would take about 4 hours, possibly a little longer, to get to Atotonilco from Guadalajara. It’s really much closer to San Miguel and Guanajuato, and would make a good stop if you are visiting either one of those towns.

If you are based in Guadalajara and are looking for daytrips, San Juan de los Lagos or Zapopan are much closer and could easily be seen in a few hours.

Are you heading to Mexico soon?


Emily February 7, 2010 at 3:09 am

Hi! My in-laws (they are native to Mexico; I am not!) want to take us on a trip to San Juan de Los Lagos, specifically because Nina (grandma) prayed to that virgin for something and it was part of the deal that she’d make the pilgrimage.

Anyway, should we actually stay in the town of San Juan de Los lagos, or just stay in Guadalajara? We are also planning on staying a few days in Guanajuato, just FYI.

Any advice or thoughts would be so very helpful!


Chris February 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Emily – I agree with Judy (she and I were on the same trip). You could easily do San Juan de Los Lagos as either a daytrip or a stop on the way between Guadalajara and Guanajuato. We didn’t stay overnight in San Juan de Los Lagos, so I don’t have any particular recommendations for lodging there, but it is a town where many Mexicans visit so I’m sure there are some places. If you are looking for Western hotel brands, the closest would probably be in Guadalajara.

It sounds like a significant trip for Nina, so it will probably be special for all of you! Enjoy your time in that area of Mexico and report back here afterward!


Judy Wells February 7, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Emily –

You can easily stop in San Juan de los Lagos en route between Guadalajara (easiest to fly into) and Guanajuato. If your Nina wants to stay more than a few hours, you might want to spend the night there.



Chris February 7, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Thanks, Judy, for helping out! Didn’t I see you had a birthday this past week? Hope you are enjoying better weather than we have here (we’re buried under 2 feet of snow!) On days like this, I miss Mexico!


Judy Wells February 7, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Chris – yes, I’m working on another year as of yesterday. We’ve had more gray days this winter than usual, and a bit more cold but at least we don’t have to shovel snow. I’d like to be back in Mexico too. Are you going to Thailand? I’ve decided to make a 2-3 day stop in Dubai on the way over and I think others have too. Judy


Chris February 7, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Judy – Unfortunately, no. I’m still technically in Editors Council, so I’ll be going to Portland instead. While I love Thailand, I was there less than three years ago so it didn’t seem worth the money. And finally, we’re moving back to Philly in early March, so the time didn’t seem right. Have fun, though, and I’ll look for your blog updates!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: