Floating life: cruising Mexico City's canals

Picture this: you're floating down a network of green canals in a colorful, open air trajinera (gondola) named Viva Lupita. Your silent boatman propels you through the waters using a long wooden pole. On the banks, barely visible through the bushes, orchards, trees and flowers, you spot small homes, children running, women hanging laundry. Musicians and refreshment vendors float alongside you in other boats, offering up food, drink and song. Trumpeting mariachis and a large family sing the traditional Mexican birthday serenade 'Las Mañanitas' to a little girl in two boats to your right; to your left, a passing group of young and boisterous revelers shout and laugh. You and your friends relax on the paper-flower adorned Viva Lupita's wooden benches, enjoying antojitos (snacks) and roast chicken, tortillas and beer in the warm late afternoon sun.

Bienvenidos (welcome to) Xochimilco! At the southern edge of Mexico City, only an hour by metro and light train from the Zócalo and the chaos of the city center, Xochimilco (Náhuatl for 'place where flowers grow') is a time-honored weekend destination for locals and visitors alike. You’ve made your lazy Sunday escape, and are now hosting a floating picnic party amidst the last vestiges of the canals and chinampas (floating gardens) of Tenochtitlán - the grand Aztec city on a lake that the Spanish conquistadors dubbed 'the Venice of the New World'.

Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987, the chinampas are still used for cultivation to this day, mainly for garden plants and flowers. While they're quiet and peaceful during the week, a fiesta atmosphere takes over on weekends, with Sundays being especially lively.

Hundreds of trajineras await passengers at the village's nine embarcaderos (boat landings). Nearest to the center are Salitre and San Cristóbal, both 400m east of the plaza; and Fernando Celada, 400m west on Guadalupe Ramírez. Boats seat 14 to 20 people; official cruise prices (M$140 to M$160 per hour) are posted at the embarcaderos. On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 60-person lanchas colectivas (larger launches) run between the Salitre, Caltongo and Nativitas embarcaderos, charging M$20 per passenger per roundtrip.

Fixed prices for food, drink and even music on the waterways are also posted at the embarcaderos - one tune costs M$25 on marimbas, M$50 when played norteño style, and M$70 if performed by mariachis. You can even arrange for your trajinera to stop at Nativitas embarcadero for a shopping detour at its large artesanías market.

 Transport

  • Metro: Take metro Línea 2 to the end of the line, Tasqueña, then continue on the Tren Ligero (light rail, M$2) to its last stop. Upon exiting the station, turn left (north) and follow Av Morelos to the market, plaza and church.
  • Bicycle taxi: If you don't feel like walking to the embarcaderos, bicycle taxis will shuttle you there for M$30 to M$50.

Further information

Spanish speakers may find the Delegación Xochimilco website helpful. It contains heaps of great info about the embarcaderos, trajineras and chinampas.

To find out more about Xochimilco's many charms (Island of the Dolls, anyone?), download a copy of Lonely Planet's Mexico City neighborhoods chapter. And when you've had your fill of the capital, there's always the Riviera Maya...