Travel Date: July 2012
Long before I sailed the canals of Venice and fallen in love with the canals of Bruges, I cruised the canals of Xochimilco.
Xochimilco is located south of Mexico City and a morning canal cruise is included in the itinerary for a daytrip which includes a visit to Coyoacan and Frida Kahlo’s House. Again, being a solo traveler, I joined a tour offered by the hostel I stayed at.
Xochimilco has a system of canals which measures about a total of 170 sq. km. It was used in the pre-Hispanic times as a transportation avenue, especially of goods. That time, parts of the shallow lakes were filled in which created the canals. During the early colonial era, the interconnected lakes including Lake Xochimilco, were drained. Centuries later, the lakes had shrunk to a system of canals. With the pumping of aquifers, the water tables have dropped, drying canals and these canals in Xochimilco are the only ones left.
Chinampas are artificial agricultural plots found along the canals of Lake Xochimilco, invented by the pre-Hispanic Mexicans to increase agricultural production. On the shallow parts of the lakes, rafts made of juniper branches were constructed. Onto these rafts, lakebed mud and soil were heaped and crops were planted. Over time, these rafts which were tied to juniper trees, sink and a new one was built as replacement. These sunken rafts formed islands.
The most famous chinampa in Xochimilco is owned by Julian Santana Barrera. He collected old, broken dolls from the canals and garbage sites and hang them from tree branches or in tree trunks. He is said to have kept these dolls to drive evil spirits away which will help in his harvest.
Though Mr. Barrera died in 2001, the dolls in his chinampa were still there when we visited. It felt a little creepy, so much different from the calm ambiance of Xochimilco.
Trajineras are small, non-motorized boats which carry an arch affixed to the roof. These boats carry names of females and decorated with flowers or painted in floral designs.
World Heritage Site
Xochimilco was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO website, “the lacustrine landscape of Xochimilco, located 28 km south of the city, constitutes the only reminder of traditional Pre-Hispanic land-use in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin. In the midst of a network of small canals, on the edge of the residual lake of Xochimilco (the southern arm of the great drained lake of Texcoco), some chinampas or “floating” gardens can still be found. Parts of this half-natural, half-artificial landscape are now an “ecological reserve”.”
The Canal Cruise
Of course, the main point in visiting Xochimilco is cruising the canals with a trajineras. A trajineras is large enough to accommodate about 12 persons, so it is an ideal activity to while away time with family and friends. A long table and benches allow for eating and drinking.
Cruising the canals, it was a delight to watch the colorful trajineras cruising the waters too.
Hungry? Thirsty? Don’t fret, there’s food options courtesy of local vendors sailing the canals in their canoes. We couldn’t resist the elote, Mexican version of corn in a cob.
With your loved one? A canal cruise can be romantic with a serenade from the mariachi riding their own trajineras.
Though Xochimilco has become a tourist attraction with facilities/activities that are catered to tourists, I noticed that for the locals, Xochimilco is a way of life.
True to its name Xochimilco which means “flower field”, a trip along the canals is a colorful way to while away the time and be entertained the Xochimilcuan way.