Atotonilco

By taxi, Atotonilco is about half an hour away from San Miguel. I went there to see the mid-18th century Sanctuary of Atotonilco, which is sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico because of its murals by Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre, was built between 1742 and 1746.

Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with folk renditions of the life of Christ. There are angels, saints, fruit, and flowers as well as grisly scenes of demonic figures writhing, bleeding and dying. The Chapel of the Holy Rosary has a carved, gold-covered wooden altar and paintings on Venetian mirrors.

The church also houses sculptures, and one of the most renowned is the Lord of the Column, depicting Jesus leaning on a column, all bloodied and bruised. Miracles have been attributed to the statue, including the lifting of an epidemic in San Miguel 175 years ago.

Nearby Atotonilco is the secluded Soledad Benedictine monastery, about 10 minutes away by taxi. The monastery, set in the beautiful desert landscape, is peaceful and offers the possibility for solitude.

Their Masses, held in a sparse, new chapel with whitewashed walls, a stone arch, wooden choir stalls and stained-glass windows that cast a cloak of colors over the choir area, include Gregorian chants.

Visitors can stay up to one week for about $25 a day. The price includes a room and three meals, which are taken in silence with the resident monks.

The gift shop has wood sculptures carved by the monks and by a local artist Juan Guerrero. There are animals, crosses, salad bowls and saints, with prices from $25 to $100.

Querétaro

It took a bus an hour and 20 minutes to travel the 42 miles from San Miguel, and after arriving in Querétaro I headed straight for the regional museum.

Highlights include prehistoric finds (from as early as 7000 BC) and a room that reconstructs the life of the Chichimeca Indians before European contact.

An important display is the ornately carved table where the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848. Under the treaty, Mexico ceded the U.S. large chunks of the Southwest for $15 million.

Nearby, inside the Governor's Palace, is the Casa de la Corregidora, the home of a heroine of the Mexican War for Independence, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. She alerted fellow conspirators of danger — depending on which story you believe — through a keyhole, by whispering through the walls or tapping on the floor. The result was that word reached Father Miguel Hidalgo, architect of Mexico's independence, and led to his uttering the famous grito, or call to arms.

Then take a 10-minute walk to the graceful former Convent of Santa Cruz. Its long corridors lead to a little garden bearing the "tree of the crosses." In 1697, Father Antonio Margil de Jesus placed a walking stick in the ground and, according to legend, a tree with three little thorns and a cross sprouted from it. The thorns look like the nails of the Crucifixion. The site has been a Franciscan seminary since 1645 and is home to 36 friars.

A historical highlight of the building is the room where Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, emperor of Mexico, was imprisoned for three days in 1867 before he was executed.

Querétaro's spookiest building is the Museo Casa de la Zacatecana, where a wealthy couple from Zacatecas came to live in 1869. The wife had her husband killed, then killed the murderer so he wouldn't talk. Their bones, buried under the main floor of the house, are visible under glass. The wife was later murdered too, the story goes. Today, the house is a glorious museum, bedecked with 18th century art.

Dolores Hidalgo

Locals call the town Dolores, and many drive 27 miles northwest of San Miguel to browse its rows of ceramic shops. A friend told me Amora was among the best of them. Its shelves and floor are piled with raucously colored Mexican Talavera ware — pots, containers, urns, platters. Artisans work at the rear of the shop, each sitting in a white plastic chair, paintbrush in hand.

Off the main square in the town center is the Church of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, where Father Hidalgo uttered the call to arms.

From there it's a two-minute walk to the Museum of National Independence, with its life-size statues of the padre, and murals that depict the tragic, violent conquest of Mexico by the Spanish.