A long time before Mexico City became one of the largest cities in the world, the Valley of Mexico was a vast lake system. The lake was connected by a complex system of causeways and canals, and dotted with islands and floating gardens.
Then the Spanish conquistadors arrived, however, and they set about draining the canals, destroying the dams and building roads in their place instead.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that the seemingly limitless urban sprawl that characterises Mexico City was ever home to lagoons and waterways. Until, that is, you visit the canals of Xochimilco.
Updated for 2020. Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. For more information please see our disclosure policy.
Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-mil-co) means ‘garden of flowers’ or ‘place where flowers grow’ in the Aztec’s Nahuatl. This neighbourhood in the south of the capital is where you can catch a glimpse of not just pre-Hispanic but pre-Aztec Mexico.
This area, originally a separate city, is the only place in the capital where these Mexico City canals remain. What you see today, however, is just a fraction of what was there originally. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico City.
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Visiting the Xochimilco canals
During Aztec times, the waterways were the main mode of transport. There existed an incredible system of canals and causeways, bridges that could be raised and lowered, levees, dams and miles of aqueducts. Little of this engineering ingenuity is left in Xochimilco apart from the “floating gardens”, called chinampas.
In reality these islands don’t float but were created by sinking cane frames into the shallow lake bed and then filling the frames with mud and old vegetation and sediment.
The islands were – and continue to be – incredibly fertile and were a major agricultural source for the Aztecs. Very few of the thousands and thousands of chinampas remain but they still exist in Xochimilco and are still used to grow vegetables and flowers today.
In 1987 Xochimilco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 1993 the Parque Ecologico de Xochimilco (ecological reserve), was established to protect the area.
Today, floating along the Venice of Mexico on colorful trajineras (a Mexican type gondola) is a hugely popular weekend pastime. Come along on any Saturday or Sunday and you’ll find families, groups of friends and couples cruising along the ancient canals enjoying a floating fiesta.
Bobbing alongside the trajineras you’ll find live mariachi groups performing on barges and vendors selling colourful sombreros and ponchos from their wooden canoes. There are boats selling food and drinks, including floating taco stands.
There are even photographers gliding along who will snap your photo and print it for you there and then. Visit during the week and you’ll see kids being paddled to and from school.
There is also the incredibly creepy Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls). Floating past this island you’ll spot dozens of dolls tied to trees. I much prefer the chinampas selling plants and flowers!
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The waters of Xochimilco are also home to the Mexican axolotl (pronounced a-ho-lot-e). It’s also known as a Mexican salamander or the Mexican walking fish (even though it is technically an amphibian). This curious looking fellow is endangered and now a protected species.
One local enterprising family has opened a small “wildlife” centre where you can see an axolotl as well as a number of snakes. Ask your trajinera captain and he’ll take you there.
Xochimilco is located in the south of Mexico City. There are nine embarcaderos (boat landings). If driving, you’ll often find that men on bicycles will spot you trying to navigate your way around Xochimilco’s streets and will offer to lead you to the embarcardero where they work.
As much as it’s tempting to think of this as some kind of tourist trap it’s actually very helpful and because all the prices are fixed, you can’t be ripped off. Unless you have a preferred dock then I would recommend following one of these men on bikes.
There are official rates for everything – from the boat hire to price per song from a Mariachi band. At the time of writing, the official website had been suspended at the time of writing but rates should be around MX $500 per hour. This is per boat not per person. You should also tip your boatman at the end of your journey.
The trajineras seat 14 to 20 people. Benches or wooden chairs sit either side of a long wooden table. The table and chairs are in the shade. On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, there are lanchas colectivas (larger launches) that fit 60 people.
The canals are open year-round; weekdays are quiet, weekends are lively, busy and fun!
Tips for visiting Xochimilco with kids
- The front and back of the boat are open so be careful if you have small children with you.
- We have visited Xochimilco a handful of times with kids, the first time when the children were 2.5-years and 4-years old and it was fine.
- There are toilets! Ask your boatman and he’ll pull up at one of the chinampas.
- Food and antojitos (snacks) are for sale throughout the canals including quesadillas, sopes, and fried chicken.
- Beer and pulque (a milky mildly alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant) are also available as well as soft drinks and water. A lot of people bring picnics with them.
- Bring cash!
- Three hours is a good length of time to enjoy a boat ride along the canals. You could, however, easily spend the entire day floating along the waterways, especially if the tequila is flowing freely!