Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, a Quintessential UNESCO Gem in Mexico City

Lying south of the city, remnants of history and culture pulse through the old canals of Xochimilco.  The canal system, dating back to pre-Hispanic times, has long served as an important center for agriculture by virtue of chinampas.  Chinampas are man-made islands, created in the shallow lake-beds.  Throughout history, these fertile crop lands of Xochimilco have produced some of the greatest numbers crops in the region.

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Since 1987, Xochimilco has been designated by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, a distinction given by the United Nations that recognizes the importance of the site’s preservation due to its social, cultural, and economic contributes.  For a while now, Xochimilco has earned a reputation as a fairly popular cultural destination in Mexico City.  For great reason too, as many parts of the waterway remain fairly unchanged and visitors can experience a voyage through the canals and chinampas on colorful traditional gondola-like boats, called trajineras.  

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The ride is slow and leisurely and as the sun casts over the boat, the mist rises in the mountains ahead.  Older homes nestled on the banks are kissed by lush green vegetation and blush blossoms.  Nearby, boats row by offering mariachi serenades and local foods.

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We went on a Friday.  Still a weekday, but nearing the weekend, I had expected we would be trudging through the canals bumper to bumper with other tourists.  I knew that Xochimilco is a pretty popular spot to grab a group of friends and drink your way through the day.  I was pleasantly surprised that only a few other boats headed out on this day, the majority of which held dozens of high schoolers partying away as they celebrated having an extra day off school that week.  We occasionally neared them, exchanged pleasantries, and partook in their tequila, but most of the time we moseyed on peacefully enjoying a quiet boat ride.

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The tour we chose was a two-hour ride down and then back up the same way.  There is a longer tour that travels further through less visited areas.  For those who enjoy a spooky experience, it could be perfect since you can visit the “Isla de Muñecas,” or Island of the Dolls where dozens of seemingly dead or zombified dolls hang from trees.  We found that the two-hour ride was more than enough time to relax, enjoy the sun, and appreciate the waterway in its beauty.

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A photo from Isla de Muñecas website

To get there from the main areas of the city, it’s quite easy to Uber or take a cab.  If you are familiar with the metro, the area is served well by connecting metro and light rail.  If you did Uber to the site, prepare to hail a taxi back to town as Ubers may not be as readily available.

Once in the neighborhood of Xochimilco, ask to be taken to the Embarcadero, which is the main loading dock for the canals.  There, you will find an official poster listing the prices for the tour.  When I went in May, it was about $750 pesos for the two-hour ride PER BOAT.  People may try to scam by saying the price is per person or listing a higher rate.  Do not pay more than the poster indicates as this is the set rate.

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After paying, the guide will escort you to the next boat that is ready to disembark.  You can purchase food ahead of time from the food stalls at the dock or bring your own.  Same with drinks.  The guide will offer to purchase beer at cost and load them into the onboard cooler.  It did appear that many of the locals traveling down had brought their own items on board.

This is a perfect day trip for large groups.  If you’re a couple or traveling solo–you may wish to ask to hop on board another boat being filled if you seek company or are on a budget.  Otherwise, it may offer a nice opportunity for solitude as you drift through the water, lost in the color.

NOTE: Sadly, Xochimilco is considered at risk for losing its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to decay in some areas.  Please travel responsibly, packing out what you bring in and respecting the natural elements. Also, don’t forget to tip your guide for their very difficult work rowing the boat up and down the waterways.

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