The Xochimilco (so-chee-milko) floating gardens of Mexico City constructed by the Aztecs long before the Spanish conquest to support agriculture and small village life is at risk of extinction. To take a boat ride along the waterways that extend for miles around the islands, called chinampas, is to experience what life may have been like then and for me is an essential part of knowing Mexico. It has always been important for me to link past with present as a way to understand what the future may hold.
Leave the dock in a Venetian-style gondola painted in primary colors and within twenty minutes the boatman has you in a serene natural environment beyond the hectic, urban center of the Xochimilco neighborhood.
Float by and see the greenhouses and nurseries where Aztec descendents grow ornamental plants and vegetables just like their fore bearers. Known as floating gardens, they are in fact Aztec-made islands anchored to the lakebed by centuries of rock and humus. Degradation from encroaching waterlilies and illegal squatters threaten their fragile existence.
To help with preservation, Xochimilco was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Yet, rare species of wildlife are at risk and the canals are filling in and becoming polluted. Go while you still can!
On Sundays, local families and tourists fill all the gondolas you see in the photo above. Many stay on the water for six or eight hours. A curious sight is to see a “side-car” gondola attached to the one carrying people from which cooks prepare and serve meals. Other side-car gondolas carry minstrels and mariachi music-makers to entertain, or you can pull up to a comedor situated canal-side complete with boat dock. Our Thursday afternoon excursion was much more tranquil. We could concentrate on the natural beauty.
It’s not easy to get here. The neighborhood is in the southern part of the city and takes a good forty-five minutes to more than an hour to travel from Mexico City center depending on traffic, which is fierce during most hours of any weekday. Ask your hotel to book you a driver. We paid 120 pesos an hour. The boat ride was 300 pesos an hour for up to twelve people, so we asked our driver Fabian if he wanted to join us. He did. He was thrilled and loved the experience, a first for him.
This was an extra-long day. We spent the morning at Casa Azul, The Frida Kahlo Museum, the home she shared with Mexican muralist-artist Diego Rivera. The Coyoacan location was much closer to Xochimilco than where we were staying at El Patio 77 in the San Rafael district, which we liked very much by the way!
After we got to Xochimilco around one-thirty in the afternoon, we made a beeline to the public market in search of fast-food tamales and blue corn tacos for lunch. Not exactly street food, but pretty close. (Hunger called. We ate the tamales so fast we forgot to take photos.)
Sunday Afternoon on the Last Aztec Lagoon: Xochimilco
We packed it in. After a Sunday morning at Casa Azul followed by seeing the largest private collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, we took an UBER (safe, easy, the only way to get around in Mexico City, despite USA negatives) to the Embarcadero de Nativitas in Xochimilco for a boat ride on the last Aztec canals in Mexico City.
Colorful fun. Fake flower crown vendors, Xochimilco.
Sunday is definitely the day to go. You get the full experience of what it is like to party on the trajineras — the flat bottom boat that can hold huge families,
How about some lively mariachi music? A Mexican tradition.
plus an entourage of mariachis playing guitars, trumpets, accordions and violins.
Sunday is the best day to be on the Xochimilco lagoons for people-watching.
It’s almost like riding a gondola in Venice, Italy. Maybe better. Much more colorful.
Dancing the afternoon away, Xochimilco
Sometimes families bring their own cook and the smell and smoke of grilling meats pervades the waterways. Sometimes families bring their own beer and the bottles pile up for the longer rides through the canals.
You can buy a pig en route, just transfer from their boat to yours.
It is festive, relaxing and the quintessential Mexican experience. Is it touristy? Yes. But, it’s also real because locals do this as part of birthdays, anniversaries, and any other excuse to have a celebration.
Expand the party and tie two boats together
Sometimes, you see two trajineras tethered together, so groups of forty or more can jump between boats, dance, sing and generally carouse. Children find their entertainment, too, relaxing in the sun, playing games, and dancing along with the adults. Just being together.
It’s a perfect way to enjoy the family, just 45 minutes from city center
The rate is fixed per boat: 350 pesos per hour. We went out for two hours and the next time, I think being out on a four-hour excursion would be better.
Doll island. Some say its haunted.
Then, we could get into the more remote areas where birds and flowers are more prevalent than people.
I had fresh roasted native corn on the cob. Valeria chose esquites.
Hungry? A small boat will pull up and entrepreneurial vendors will sell you grilled corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, chili and lime juice. Thirsty? Beer and soft drinks are delivered the same way.
How about a pulque? Fermented agave sap for Aztec power.
Want a souvenir? Buy a fake flower crown in any color of the rainbow. Need a pit stop? Clean facilities offer service for five pesos.
Buy a synthetic shawl or a plastic doll. Cheap fun.
On the return trip to the docking area, we had a traffic jam. Boats jammed up against each other, unable to move.
Moving the boat along. You can even buy plants from passing gondolas.
The gondoliers doing a ballet of pushing the long stick into the muck and against the next boat to jockey into a clear passageway.
Straining to move the boats on the last leg of our voyage.
Sometimes, they jumped boats to help each other out. Muscles straining, taut. Bodies at forty-five degree angles to the water.
The push-pull of getting out of the traffic jam.
I never heard a curse, only the sound of laughter and music from the party-goers, only too happy to spend extra time on the water as the boatmen sorted it out.
A jumble of color at the docking station.
Xochimilco is the last remaining vestige of what the lake region looked like during the Aztec period, pre-Conquest 1521.
Local emptying, then anchoring his launch.
This is how people got around from one island to the next. The people who live here still do. They are gardeners, growers of fruits and vegetables. It used to be that not too long ago the boats were covered in fresh flowers. Today, they are adorned with painted wood.
A remote waterway off-the-beaten path, like a jungle.
The next time you are in Mexico City, allow yourself at least a half-day to enjoy this respite from city life. Perhaps I’ll spend my next birthday here, hire a mariachi band and dance the afternoon away.
A serenade from shore on an island by the lagoon
For now, I’m at my other home in North Carolina, enjoying August heat and humidity, and the comfort of friends.
Norma Lupita, followed by Mexico Lindo. Porsupuesto.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexico City, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Aztecs, boats, gondolas, lagoon, lake, Mexico City, tourism, travel, Xochimilco