Just an hour south of Mexico City’s Zócalo lies the ecological reserve of Xochimilco (pronounced So-chi-mil-co), the Náhuatl word for ‘place where flowers grow’. Here you will find a network of canals and a series of artificial islands, more romantically known as ‘floating gardens,’ called chimpanas. They originally formed a part of Tenochtitlán (the pre-Hispanic name for what is now Mexico City) – the Aztec city on a lake that the Spanish conquistadors called ‘the Venice of the New World’; today Xochimilco forms a part of the Federal District of Mexico City.
In recognition of its cultural and historic importance and danger of disappearance it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in order to raise awareness and implement measures for its protection. UNESCO declares it an “exceptional agricultural system, based on the combination of environmental factors and human creativity…one of the most productive and sustainable agricultural systems in the world.” However, its productivity and efficiency remain severely threatened due to new agricultural technology, excessive ground-water extraction, development pressures and contamination. There are now extensive efforts by authorities at local, federal, state and national levels to promote sustainable conservation and management policies in the area.
After taking the metro to Tasqueña, followed by the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco, there are lots of guides to show you to one of nine embarcaderos (boat landings) in the area. They are so helpful, in fact, that one followed us the entire way on his bicycle to make sure we went the right way, no doubt directly to the boatman who pays his commission. Upon arrival it is very important to haggle your way to a good price. This will depend on the number of you in your group and how long you want your river tour to be. We paid $100 each for what was supposed to be half an hour but was actually an hour, and as unpaid volunteers living in Mexico we also consider ourselves very seasoned bargaineers! You should also factor in that the boatmen expect a tip, so try and join forces with other tour-seekers looking for a good deal.
The boats are gondola-style vessels called trajineras, each charmingly named in classic feminine Mexican nicknames like ‘Dulce Lupita’ and ‘Ana Paolita’. They are wonderfully and uniquely decorated in traditional Mexican colours and styles: with up to two hundred boats on the water at any time it is quite a sight to behold. As soon as you reach one of the main canals the atmosphere is as bright as the paint, and the air vivacious with laughter and music as the boats float cheerily along, each one’s passengers admiring the others in a joyful display of the Mexican spirit of sociality. Smaller boats weave their way between them offering chela (cold beer), esquites (sweetcorn), potted flowers and knick-knack souvenirs. There are also boats with Mariachi bands, ready to hop aboard and sing you a pretty ditty, for a small fee of course. Luckily not all of the visitors were penny-pinching like us, so we enjoyed a lot of music at the expense of other boats and their entertainers! There were two lanes in each direction so there was a lot of meandering and overtaking, carefully negotiated by the distinct whistles of the boatmen. Nevertheless, we did encounter one head-on crash, much to the amusement and uproar of all those on board!
There is also the option to alight at various points to peruse the garden centres, buy refreshments, or if you have a taste for the grotesque, request to stop by the infamous ‘Isla de las Muñecas’ – Island of the Dolls. Here you will find dolls with missing limbs and decapitated heads hanging from the trees, the origin of which is shrouded in mystery and legend in true Mexican folk-history fashion. It is said that Don Julian Santana Berrera found the drowned body of a little girl and hung the first doll – which he also found in the canal – in respect. But he was haunted by the girl’s spirit which had manifested itself in the doll, so he began to hang more dolls in order to appease her. The dolls are supposedly possessed by the spirits of dead girls, and are said to move and whisper to each other. After 50 years of collecting dolls, Don Julian died in 2001 by drowning in the very same spot where he found the girl; the floating island became a tourist attraction, and visitors often bring their own dolls to add to the collection.
A trip to Xochimilco is a delight for the senses and a must for anyone visiting Mexico City. It offers a refreshing taste of the frivolity, fervour and fiesta-atmosphere of traditional Mexico in stark contrast to the colonial grandeur of central Mexico City built by the Spaniards atop of the ancient Aztec city. Sure it’s a tourist hotspot for both internationals and natives alike, but there’s absolutely nothing forced or synthetic about it, and above all you’re guaranteed to leave with a smile.