A Visit to the Canals of Xochimilco

 In blog, destinations

Just a few miles away from the frenetic chaos of downtown Mexico City a tranquil network of canals and islands flush with wild birds and butterflies awaits. The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are a vestige of an earlier time and one of the few reminders of what this place was like before European conquistadors destroyed it.

Eager to escape the noise and smog of downtown, Alysa and I took an Uber to this neighborhood south of the city and arrived at the Embarcadero Cuemanco. Row upon row of brightly painted boats known as trajineras were moored at the dock.

Having read a bunch of posts on TripAdvisor that repeatedly mentioned getting scammed and price-gouged we were a bit apprehensive about booking our boat. However, nothing of the sort occurred. Prices for different routes through the canals were clearly posted and everyone on the dock was friendly without being pushy. As of writing this (November 2017), rates are 500 pesos per hour per boat.

500 years ago, what is now Mexico City was a series of canals and man-made islands in a shallow lake. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan left the Spanish conquistadors gobsmacked. Hernán Cortés wrote back to Spain that:

There are four artificial causeways leading to the city, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba (In fact it was bigger than any European city at the time). The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges. . . . There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings.*

Gone are the temples and bridges. Most of the lake is gone too. But in this one corner of Mexico City, a tiny piece of what was remains. In fact, this historical legacy has earned Xochimilco a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We elected to take the 90 minute tour down one of the canals and into a large lagoon. We boarded our trajinera and set off with our punter using a long pole to slowly and smoothly push us along. It felt a little funny to have just us two passengers in a boat that could comfortably seat 15. A long table runs down the center of the boat with chairs on either side. You could easily bring a bunch of friends here, buy lunch and a bucket of beer at the dock and cruise around on your very own party boat. And considering that the price for a ride is charged per boat and not per person, it would be very affordable too.

Being a Monday afternoon, it was very quiet on the water. Most sounds came from the ducks and egrets as the squawked and called to each other. The weekend, we are told, is an entirely different matter in Xochimilco. That’s when mariachis cruise up and down the canals playing traditional songs and restaurant boats float by offering hungry partiers something to eat. We enjoyed our quiet personal cruise, but we are thinking of coming back some weekend for a different sort of experience.

As it was, we had a wonderful time. We watched herons and egrets hunt for fish. We floated by fields of wildflowers and butterflies. Most notably though, was a silence seldom heard in urban Mexico.

We could have spent much longer in Xochimilco if we had wanted to. Three hours and you can go to the Ajolotorio, a sanctuary for a large endangered salamander that holds a special place in Aztec mythology. A four hour tour will bring you to the Island of the Dolls, a creepy homage to a drowned girl in which thousands of dolls are strung up around a small island.

We were very happy with our little nature tour though. It felt one part Venice, one part wildlife safari, and every bit Mexican. The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are a must for anyone visiting Mexico City.


*Cortés, Hernán. The Dispatches of Hernándo Cortés, The Conqueror of Mexico, addressed to the Emperor Charles V, written during the conquest, and containing a narrative of its events (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1843).

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