Sit back and enjoy the view as you glide along the canal in your brilliantly decorated private boat. Hire a mariachi to serenade you or order a meal from a passing vessel. Xochimilco provides an experience that you would never expect to have in Mexico City and makes for a fun and interesting day trip.
Chinampas or "Floating Gardens"
Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-MIL-ko) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 17 miles (28 km) south of the capital's historical center.
The name comes from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) and means "flower garden." The canals of Xochimilco are a vestige of the Aztec agricultural technique of using "chinampas" to extend arable land in wetland areas.
Chinampas are raised agricultural fields between canals. They are formed by rooting rectangular cane frames to the lake floor and filling them with alternating layers of aquatic weeds, muck and earth until they rise up about one meter above the surface of the water. Willow trees (ahujotes) are planted along the edges of the fields and their roots help to contain the chinampas. Although they're called "floating gardens" chinampas are in fact rooted to the lake bed. This agricultural technique shows the ingenuity of the Aztecs and their ability to adapt to their surroundings. Chinampas allowed for intensive farming of swampy areas and allowed the Aztec empire to sustain a large population in a swampy area.
Take a Ride on a Trajinera
The brightly colored boats that transport passengers through the canals of Xochimilco are called trajineras (pronounced "tra-hee-nair-ahs"). They are flat-bottomed boats similar to gondolas. You can hire one to take you for a ride. This is most fun to do in a group: the boats seat about a dozen people.
If you come with just a few people you may be able to join up with another group, or you can hire a boat just for your party. The cost is about 350 pesos per hour for the boat.
On your ride around the canals you will come across other trajineras, some selling food, others offering musical entertainment. You can be serenaded by mariachis.
La Isla de Las Muñecas
One of Mexico's creepier attractions, La Isla de las Muñecas, or "The Island of the Dolls," is located in the Xochimilco canals. The legend behind this island is that many years ago its caretaker Don Julian Santana found the body of a girl who drowned in the canal. Shortly afterward he found a doll floating in the canal. He tied it to a tree as a way of showing respect to the drowned girl's spirit. Apparently, he was haunted by the girl and continued to hang old dolls in various states of disrepair on the trees of the small island as a way to appease her spirit. Don Julian died in 2001, but the dolls are still there and continue to deteriorate, getting even creepier over time.
How to Get There
Take Metro Line 2 (blue line) to Tasqueña (sometimes spelled Taxqueña). Outside the Tasqueña metro station you can get the Tren Ligero (light rail).
The light rail does not accept Metro tickets: you must buy separate tickets (around $3). Xochimilco is the last station on the Tren Ligero line, and the embarcaderos are just a short walk away. Follow the arrows on the small blue signs - they will lead you to the pier.
If your time is limited, don't bother trying to get there on public transport - take a tour. A day trip to Xochimilco will include stops at a few other sites such as Coyoacan where you can visit the Frida Kahlo House Museum or maybe the UNAM campus (Mexico's National Autonomous University), which is also a UNESCO site.
If you go
Keep in mind that Xochimilco is a popular outing for Mexican families and friends on weekends and holidays, so it can be quite crowded. This can make for a fun experience, but if you would prefer a more tranquil visit, go during the week.
You can buy food and drinks from other passing trajineras, or to save money, buy some before you board the boat and take it with you.
You'll want to hire a trajinera for at least two hours to get far enough out to see some different scenery. Don't pay the boatman until the end of the ride, and it is customary to give a tip.
Xoximilco Park in Cancun
There's a park in Cancun that recreates the floating gardens experience of Xochimilco. Called Xoximilco, this park is run by Experiencias Xcaret and offers tours on trajineras and serves Mexican dishes and drinks as the boats do a circuit and passengers enjoy various types of traditional Mexican music. Unlike the original Xochimilco, the park in Cancun is a nighttime experience. Learn more about Xoximilco: Mexican Night in Cancun.