There are two main parts to Xochimilco - a traditional area and
an ecological park north of town. Both areas offer excellent bird
watching. The canals and lagoons attract bulrushes, ducks, herons
We recommend the more touristed canals which are lively -- particularly
on weekends. Brightly-colored and squarish boats (trajineras) carry
up to a dozen passengers. Families visit the park en masse and board
the gondolas. There are always plenty of vendors (in smaller canoes)
with food and drink, souvenirs and music. Hire a floating mariachi
band -- there is a special price for three songs!
THE VALUE OF TOURISTS
Xochimilco became recognized as a tourist attraction in its own
right in the 1920s. European guidebooks romanticized the gardens
and described Xochimilco as the Venice of Mexico. Today the region
depends on tourism to maintain thousands of jobs -- from the musicians
to the cooks to the craft vendors.
As testament to the site's historic value, UNESCO
declared Xochimilco a Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.
Visits can assist local environmental conservation efforts. If
you are taking a trip from the Nuevo Nativitas or Caltongo landings,
ask your boatman to take you to the Apatlaco Canal where one family
has set up a breeding area for the axolotl,
an endangered salamander (pictured here).
Contributions to support this work are encouraged. The International
Union for Conservation of Nature includes the axolotl on its annual
Red List of threatened species.
As in centuries past, canals surround raised agricultural fields
called chinampas. Since the Valley of Mexico was originally wetlands,
the chinampas were the most productive means of agricultural production.
Between the eighth and tenth centuries, seven Nahua tribes arrived
in the Valley of Mexico. The Xochimilca people founded their city
at the southern tip of the valley. Another tribe, the Aztecs
(or Mexica), founded Tenochtitlán and the Aztec empire farther
north. Soon after the Aztecs' arrival, they conquered the Xochimilcas,
whose agricultural fields, or chinampas, were used to provide the
food for the growing Aztec empire. Today the D.F. encompasses the
In the early 1500s, before the Spanish conquest, chinampas covered
nearly 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres) on Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco.
Each hectare (2.47 acres) could feed about 20 people, thus supporting
most of Tenochtitlán's residents.
When the Spanish arrived, they began to drain the lake bed. Today's
canals are the deepest of what was a much larger system.
What was the proud agricultural hub became a neglected garden.
Hundreds of years later, in the 1970s and 1980s, it became a depository
for the city's waste waters. The many freshwater springs that once
fed Lake Xochimilco were successively diverted to provide a water
supply for Mexico City. More than two-thirds of the fields cultivated
in the 1930s have been paved over by streets and homes.
Most of the water that reached the canals was contaminated by
residential or industrial pollution and could not be used for food
crops. The chinamperos chose to increase flower cultivation instead,
using discarded oil cans filled with organic muck from the bottom
of the canal. The area has suffered from environmental neglect.
The chinampas should not be seen as mere historical artifacts,
but as living examples of alternative agriculture.
Farmers continue to scrape muck and organic debris from the canals,
using the muck as fertilizer for the agricultural gardens. They
harvest chilicastle, the plentiful, shiny blue-green algae that
grows on the water's surface to help maintain the soil's fertility.
Chinampas are formed by alternating layers of aquatic weeds, muck,
and earth packed inside rectangular cane frames firmly rooted to
the lake floor.
You may hear them called floating gardens, but the term takes poetic
license with the truth. Trees are planted along the edges of the
fields. Their roots have long anchored the beds securely to the