In the heart of Mexico’s capital city sits Xochimilco, a borough celebrated for two things: chinampas, floating man-made gardens full of vegetables, fruits, and flowers; and trajineras, multi-hued flat-bottomed watercrafts, which resemble a Venetian rowing boat.
The long-used chinampa agricultural system, within the canals of Lake Xochimilco, is evidence of the district’s precolonial roots, which has earned Xochimilco a spot on the World Heritage Site list. For the polyglots out there, Xochimilco is a grouping of Nahuatl words, xochitl and milli, which translates to “where the flowers grow”. The canal waterways have been used as the foremost transportation method for goods from the pre-Hispanic era until the 20th Century and are now an important tourism draw. International travel will, one day soon, resume and likely you’ll want to visit a destination full of culture, delicious food, and a festive atmosphere. Enter: Mexico City.
A Trajinera Called Carmelita
Riding on a rainbow-colored trajinera, propelled by a gondolier with a long pole at the stern, is an experience like no other. Dozens of boats are sandwiched together at the dock and when stepping onto your vessel, you’ll pass under a large painted arch, marked with a distinctive name: Laurita, Viva Lupita, Princesa, Esmeralda, etc. A long wooden table, complete with individual chairs, is affixed down the center of the craft for guests.
These boats float down the canal together, stopping at additional trajinera’s along the way that are playing mariachi music, cooking and serving traditional Mexican food, and serving up shots of tequila and bottles of cerveza. You’ll ride alongside locals as they commemorate important cumpleaños (birthdays) and aniversarios (anniversaries). It’s a party and a celebration of Mexican culture, for travelers and native citizens. When you return to the dock, there’ll be oodles of vendors selling their wares as you wander through a carnival with dancing, music and games.
How to Enter: Trajinera’s float down 114 miles of chinampas-filled channels and there are multiple entry locations. Las Flores Nativitas and Zacapa embarcaderos are recommended for their accessible parking, craft markets, and restaurants. You’ll be near the Nativitas Forest, known as the lungs of Mexico City, and the Madreselva Plant and Flower Market.
The Island of the Dolls
Intrepid travelers can take an hour-long canal excursion from the embarcadero in Xochimilco to the well-known chinampa, Isla de las Munecas, or The Island of the Dolls, where hundreds of dolls and their parts are hung in trees to honor a girl that once drowned nearby. Don Julian Santana Barrera was a caretaker of the floating island and he hung dolls in the trees to appease the spirit of the departed girl after he found her body and, what he believed, was her floating doll.
Isla de las Munecas was featured on the Travel Channel, with paranormal investigator and host of Ghost Adventures, Zac Bagans. Professor Sebastian Flores Farfan, director of the Xochimilco Historical Archives, spoke with Bagans about the island. Farfan knew Barrera, who was eventually found dead close to the same spot that the girl died next to the Island of the Dolls.
Keep your eyes out for the Danza de los Voladores, a ceremony of dancers that has profound spiritual significance, associated with a healthy rain-filled growing season and harvest as well as fertile Earth. Five men climb up a tall pole, in traditional dress, and while one plays a flute or a drum and sings at the top, the other four men cascade backward off the pole, attached to ropes, and descend toward the ground. You can see the Voladores (flyers) ritual in Xochimilco as well as in front of the National Museum of Anthropology on select weekends, in the heart of Mexico City.
Mexico’s Cultural Heritage
In addition to preserving World Heritage Sites, UNESCO keeps an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List, also called a living cultural heritage. Mariachi, traditional Mexican cuisine, El Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Charreria equestrian practice, and the ritual ceremony of the Voladores are all on this important list, among other traditions and ceremonies that have been passed down from generation to generation through oral history, performance art, fiestas, and communal practices.
Mexico City: What to Eat and See
The tours of Xochimilco are frequently offered in tandem with a sightseeing tour of Mexico’s capital city. You’ll, of course, want to sample street food throughout the city’s markets and have a meal at one of Mexico City’s finest restaurants. A local favorite is Pujol, owned by Enrique Olvera, which offers a seven-course tasting menu.
Wall Street Journal named Pujol, which opened in 2000, as the city’s best eatery and noted that simple ingredients like mole and corn have received a haute makeover with flavorings and upscale presentation (powdered ants, anyone?). Pujol, consequently, has utilized herbs and ingredients grown on a chinampas in Xochimilco, for their famed dishes. (Many other restaurants in Mexico City have followed suit.)
The New York Times highlighted Pujol in a piece about the restaurant’s new location. Midcentury modern architecture creates an inviting Mad Men-like ambiance, where a wood grill is at the helm of the traditional Mexican kitchen.
Top things to do in Mexico City include: