Picture the scene – you’re floating down a network of inner city canals, music in the air and a boatman using a long wooden pole to smoothly push you through the water. No, you’re not in Venice, this is Mexico City.
Xochimilco (or ‘the place where the flowers grow’ in the Aztec language of Nahuatl) is a key attraction for both tourists and locals of Mexico city. Just an hour south of the city centre, people flock here in their droves on a weekend or public holidays to boat on the canals and chinampas (floating gardens) of Tenochtitlán, a former Aztec city that the conquering Spanish named ‘the Venice of the new world’.
We only had chance to visit during the week (and our visit was not very successful) but as Saturday and Sunday come, the area becomes a veritable fiesta. As you float along in your open air gondola, or trajinera, mariachi musicians will play traditional songs on passing barges, flower sellers and food vendors will pull up next to you and families will be partying with beers on nearby boats.
Although Xochimilco officially became part of Mexico City in 1928, it was a separate city since pre-Hispanic times. The canals that characterise the area are all that is left of a lake covering much of the area. The Aztecs filled in parts of the lake, creating waterways for transportation. The lake continued to shrink during early colonisation until only the canals of Xochimilco remained as they are today.
1,000 years ago, the pre-hispanic settlers of the are created rafts of juniper branches on to which they placed soil to use for cultivation known as chinampas. These remaining chinampas are part of the Xochimilco World Heritage Site (since 1987 – although the deterioration of the area is threatening it’s status) and are still used today for crops and flower growing while some larger islands have formed solid ground, allowing for buildings to be constructed on them.
How to get there
It’s fairly easy to get to Xochimilco by public transport and takes between an hour and 90 minutes to reach. First, take Metro Line 2 (the blue line) to the end, alighting at station Tasqueña. From here, head through the turnstiles and the doors to the Tren Ligero (light rail). The light rail does not accept Metro tickets, so you must buy a CDMX re-loadable card (you can share one card between multiple people) for MX$10 and load it with MX$3 per-person one-way. There are ticket booths just outside the turnstiles, you can’t miss them. You will take the light rail to station Xochimilco, the last station on the light rail line. From the station, follow the small blue signs on the street with arrows that will lead to the embarcadero, or just follow the crowd.
What to do
At the embarcadero, take one of the brightly coloured trajineras on a tour of the canals and floating islands. Provided it is a busy day, you will see mariachi bands performing on the water and people selling flowers and food from gondolas along side you. So sit back, buy a beer from a passing boat and enjoy the ride.
If you have a bit more time you can take the 2 hour canal ride to ‘The Island of the Dolls‘. The Island is now a tourist attraction but once belonged to the hermit Santana Barrera. Finding a dead girl floating in the canals, he hung her doll from tree by his hut as a mark of respect. When he began to hear voices and started losing his mind, he would gather more dolls and string them from trees to quell the voice of what he believed was the little girl speaking to him. Thousands of toys are now on the Island and Barrera’s family have opened this incredibly creepy place to the public.
To reach Xochimilco from the centre of Mexico City it will cost MX$5 for a metro ticket to Tasqueña station and a further MX$3 for the Tren Ligero – Although you will have to buy aMX$10 CDMX re-loadable card but this can be shared between multiple people.
Overall MX$26 return (£1/$1.50 US).
The prices to rent a trajinera with a driver depend on the size of boat and length of the trip. If you speak Spanish it is well worth bargaining with the owners of the gondolas. Expect to pay betweenMX$350 and MX$600 for an hours ride but this can be split between all of the passengers of the boat. You can hire musicians to float along side your boat and play mariachi music for a small fee.
On larger boats you will be able to bring your own food and drink as they have a table down the centre of the vessel.
Have you been to Xochimilco or have any tips? Leave me a comment below…