Xochimilco's Floating Gardens in Mexico City
By Habeeb Salloum
Some two decades ago, my daughter and I, on a January day, were sitting in a gondola making our way through the waterways in Venice - Italy’s city of canals.
As we were propelled forward by the gondola oarsman, I could feel the biting cold stab deep in my bones. “What are we doing here? I’m frozen!”, my daughter mumbled between her chattering teeth. Even though living in Canada all our lives, we never felt the cold like that day on a Venetian canal.
Now some quarter century later, I found
myself sailing on a trajinera, a type of gondola, cruising the canals of Xochimilco (pronounced, sochi-milko - in Aztec meaning ‘place of the flowers’) - to many, known as the ‘Floating Gardens’.
It was a serene Spring day and, as the warm breezes caressed my body, the poler gently pushed us forward. I had a feeling of serenity and contentment, especially when my mind went back to the cold wind blowing across the canals of Venice. It was a world of contrast and I was happy that I was now in this comfortable Mexican world, located in the southern part of Mexico City.
Once Was A Lake
In pre-Hispanic Mexico , in the valley where Mexico City stands was a lake called Lago Texcoco, which now has long been drained. The Aztecs, on its edge, long before the Spanish came, dug a series of canals, whose mud they heaped on the earth around the canals or on anchored reeds atop the water. These plots of land, appeared like floating islands called chinampas - hence, their name ‘floating gardens’.
To maintain soil fertility, farmers annually scraped muck from the canal bottom and applied decaying aquatic vegetation to the islands to prepare seed beds. The gardens became one of the most productive farming systems ever developed. By the time the Conquistadors came, the area of Xochimilco had become a rich agricultural district where many of the city's flowers, fruits and vegetables were grown.
Today this area, once on the edge of Mexico City , has been engulfed by that gigantic metropolis. There are miles of these canals of which only 14 km (8.7 mi), lined with farm homes and trees, dominated by the ahuejote, are navigable. The Gardens, besides still producing flowers, fruits and vegetables, have become a favourite spot where both locals and tourists come for a few hours to relax in the canals and enjoy their market culture.
Our trajinera (flat boat), like the 2,000 others that daily ply these canals for both work and pleasure, glided over the water with ease. Smaller trajineras, called chalupas (some call them ‘decorated canoes’) came up alongside and continuously harangued us, offering drinks, food, handicrafts and much more - seemingly everything under the sun was for sale on these floating markets. Some were virtually floating kitchens, which offered a complete hot meal. It seemed to me that the ingenuity of these floating vendors were endless.
Flowered Colored Boats
Every boat in the canal was brightly painted with flower designs in every colour imaginable and carried Mexicans in a holiday mood or glided through the canals with tourists enjoying the outing. In the past, the boats were decorated with real flowers, but today, due to cost and the fast pace of modern life, only paint is used. However, the panorama of colours of these boats cruising the canals creates an image of beauty with a fairyland atmosphere.
Six of us had hired the trajinera at the cost of $14. per hour and as we sat down in our boat called ‘Lololita’ - every one of the colorful trajineras carries a woman’s name - our poler came aboard with a bucket of soft drinks on ice. Now as we lazily moved along, he began to sell us the drinks at $1. each . Business was brisk. The warm sun and the feeling of peace of mind only needed a cool drink to complete the scene.
As we sipped on our drink and surveyed the colorful scene on the canal, I awoke from my dreams by the sound of both Marimba and Mariachi music. Soon, a boat with an entire Mariachi band was moving beside us. They asked for a small fee, which one our group willingly gave and, for a few minutes, they serenaded us with a feast of their music, then moved on to find other customers.
Kids Diving into the Canals
On the banks of the canals, life apparently was going on as usual for the locals and foreign tourists on their trajineras. We could glimpse farm houses, shops, markets, plant nurseries and a plethora of other cottage industries as we glided by. In places, local children were diving into the canals from the edge of a bank, as their friends watched while at other spots old men just sat, staring into space. It was a serene pastoral scene, enhanced by the activities on the canals.
Boating and picnicking
Generations of Mexican families have through the centuries flocked, on weekends, to these ‘floating gardens’. They head down to Xochimilco for boating picnics, usually staying a whole afternoon to fully explore and relax in the soothing water environment.. Now all around us, other trajineras, mostly filled with families, floated by. To escape the traffic and noise of the city, they come here to take a boat cruise along the peaceful canals. Everyone appeared happy as they ate, drank and sang, offering us drinks when their boat passed alongside.
The canals and their gardens also draw the youth. On Saturday nights, the affluent young arrive in Xochimilco with their drinks and loud music. They rent the larger boats, which take either 20 or 40 passengers. They then play their ear-piercing music and dance, while they enjoy their drinks, turning the boats into floating night clubs. The floating market chalupas, selling food and drink keep the party-goers well-fed and watered all through the night. In the morning, the boat operators clean their trajineras ready for the family-outing rush on Sunday afternoon. It’s round the clock business on the canals.
Largest Ctiy on Earth
Back in our hotel, after driving through a good part of Mexico City , with its 24 million or more people - the largest city on earth. I lay down to reminisce about our exploration of the floating gardens. It was a picture full of history, excitement and romance. As my colleague explained on our way back to the hotel, “We lived for awhile in the world of the Aztecs, yet, enjoyed their gardens in the aura of the 21 st century.”
Facts About Mexico City :
1) The easiest way to reach the Xochimilco Gardens is to take the Metro to Tasqueña Station (Line2), from there take Tren Ligero to the end of the line. There are also, buses from the centre of the city to the gardens, or one can take a taxi or, better still, join a tour group - cost - $30.
2) A bucket with beer and soft drinks is placed in the boat you hire. You pay for what you consume, plus a small tip to the oarsman after the boat returns to port.
3) Small cars, fully insured with unlimited mileage, rent for about $70. per day. Beware! It is not easy to drive in Mexico City .
4) Good places to eat excellent Mexican food in Mexico City :Los Girasoles, next door to the Palace of Fine Arts; and La Tecla Restaurant - average cost of a meal at both restaurants from $25. to $30. For an upscale Mexican meal, try Izote Restaurant whose chef is the renowned cookbook author Patricia Quintana - cost of meal from $50. to a $100.
While in Mexico City - Some of the Sites Not be Missed :
Travellers to Mexico City should not miss seeing: Mexico City's huge Plaza de la Constitution or the Zócalo, the ancient heart of town; National Museum of Anthropology, featuring 5,000 years of Mexican history, it is considered one of the finest of its kind anywhere on the globe; Chapultepec Park, housing an unparalleled collection of world-class museums amid acres of woods and gardens; Zona Rosa, an elegant neighborhood of boutiques, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and cafes; Palace of Fine Arts, a marble palace which is the home of the world-famous Ballet Folklorico; and House of Tiles, one of the most beautiful baroque buildings in Mexico.
Where to Stay in Mexico City :
Mexico City has hundreds hotels to satisfy all tastes. One of the best hotels to make your abode is the Sheraton Maria Isabel. Located in the heart of the financial and shopping district, edging the Zona Rosa, it is a luxury hotel with 755 rooms, which include luxurious suites and penthouses as well as other types of rooms. Paso de la Reforma 325, Mexico D.F. Tel: 52-55-5242-555. Fax: 52-55-5207-0684. E-Mail: Website: Cost of a standard room, $189.; Executive room, $234.
Note : All prices quoted are in US dollars.
For Further Information, Contact :
In Canada contact the Mexican TourismBoard - 2 Bloor St. West, Suite 1502 , Toronto, Ontario M4W 3E2. Toll free number: 1 800 44 MEXICO. Web: or Fax: 416/925-6061; in the U.S.A. 21 East 63rd Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10021, Tel: (212) 821-0314. Fax: (212) 821-0367.
Habeeb Salloum is a travel and food writer, as well as the author of five books, who lives in Toronto Canada.
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