A community of Mexico City connected by the canal system built by the Aztecs
The megapolis that is Mexico City today is a far cry from what the valley looked like around 100 A.D when the area was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. In this valley lay a lake called the Lago de Texcoco – not much of which survives today.
The ancient city of Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325 A.D. by the Mexicas. The city was constructed by dumping large amounts of soil into the lagoon to create islands that were interconnected by a network of canals.
The development of Tenochtitlán fulfilled one of the Mexicas ancient prophecies: They believed that their god would show them where to build a great city by providing a sign, an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus. When the Mexicas (who would later be known as the Aztecs) saw the vision come true on an island in Lake Texcoco, they decided to build a city there.
After the Spanish defeated the Aztecs they erected a second Mexico City atop the ruins of Tenochtitlán.
The original lake and canal system has all but disappeared apart from in the southern suburb known as Xochimilco, a visit to which is like stumbling across an oasis in the middle of a desert.
In recognition of the significance of the canal systems link to the cultural heritage of Mexico, Xochimilco was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Today you can tour the canals on brightly painted and decorated trajineras (a traditional flat-bottomed boat), that are powered by guides using long poles, much like the gondolas of Venice.
There are apparently 200 trajineras on the canals of Xochimilco, which might not sound a lot but these canals are narrow so on a busy day it will be like travelling on the freeways around Los Angeles.
There are no roads here so everything moves around on the waterways. The islands, known as chinampas are homes to locals and the numerous nurseries for which the area is known, growing a variety of flowers, vegetable and ornamental plants.
On busy days flower sellers take to their boats to sell their blooms to tourists and locals passing along the canals. We were here just before Christmas so the most popular plant for sale was the ubiquitous poinsettia.
Our visit was mid-week but apparently on weekends families take to the water in their masses. Here they picnic, drink copiously and bring along huge speakers to pump out their musical favourites. Sounds like a wild party, so next time we come we’ll have to make sure we head here on a weekend day!
As well as flower sellers there are other vendors peddling their wares from boats. Passing down the canals you will be frequently accosted by someone trying to sell you some food. The most popular item seemed to be corn cobs, which could be flavoured in numerous ways. We, of course, had to go with the chilli peppers!
If music is more your thing then no need to worry as there are floating mariachi bands who will pull up alongside your craft and serenade you for a fee. If that is too much and you want something a little less frenetic then there are boats with marimbas on-board.
After a few busy days in the super busy streets of Mexico City, it was very pleasant to spend a couple of quiet hours floating along the canals of Xochimilco. Of course at the weekend things would be very different and it would be fun to experience that too!
As with all of our tours on this trip to Mexico City, we booked through Wayak, and although they contract out to other smaller tour companies our experiences were great. On this tour, we had Alan as our guide, who despite being under the weather did a great job of explaining the unique culture of Xochimilco.