When Montezuma and his gang of Spanish invaders reached what is now Mexico City, it was a very different place geographically than it is today. The Aztec empire’s Tenochtitlan city of pyramids was on an island connected to the mainland with a causeway, with lake water on all sides. Many crops were grown on floating reed mats covered with soil, big enough to be artificial islands.
It’s hard to get a sense of any of that now in the sprawl of the world’s second-largest city, apart from when you see the colonial buildings tilting on their sides after sinking into the soft soil. There is one spot, however, where you can go back to that watery landscape, in Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-MIL-co). Here you move down canals in a colorful flat-bottomed boat pushed along by an oarsman with a long pole. You glide past floating gardens of flowers and houses built along the water.
A Floating Market – with Mariachi Bands
This being Mexico though, a boat trip here is not going to be a serene and quiet affair. Mariachi bands perform on boats full of revelers passing tequila bottles. Musical trios sing romantic songs to couples sharing a private boat. Of course there are vendors shouting for you to buy their wares, whether woven rugs, toys for the kids, or spicy michelada beer concoctions by the liter. On weekends the area is so popular that the main canal can get as jammed as a boulevard, with local families and partying friends spending hours on the water.
Just as with a trip from Mexico City to the pyramids of Teotihuacan though, when you book an organized trip to Xochimilco, you get much more in the itinerary. Our tour first stopped at the World Trade Center, with a painted tribute to Mexico’s great muralists, then the city’s bullfighting ring, the Olympic stadium, university buildings, and Frida’s Blue House (Museo Frida Kahlo). After Frida’s we got some wandering time in the square of Coyoacan.
After all the art and monuments, we arrived at Xochimilco. By then we were ready to grab some tacos, drink a cold one, and glide along the canals, taking it all in. It’s never hard to find food or drink in Mexico, so what we didn’t pick up on the banks of the canal before boarding, we could get from a vendor who would sidle up beside us and make a deal. As we moved along on the flat-bottomed boat – the same kind used to transport goods up until the 20th century – we got to see a very different side of the city. Beers in our hands, ice cream in my daughter’s, all was right in the world.
What’s Left of the Aztec Canals
There are some 110 miles of canals branching out from the main dock, so those who want to get more than a quick tour can return for a longer, more leisurely excursion. One of the most popular trips is to head a couple hours out and see the creepy Island of the Dolls (La Isla De Las Muñecas), which is certainly one of the creepiest places you’ll ever pull up to in a boat.
A man named Don Julián Santana lived alone on the island for some 50 years and strung baby dolls from every available tree branch and plank. Over the years the sun, wind, and rain have taken their toll on the plastic dolls – many of whom were missing limbs or a head already – and they’ve gotten even stranger looking.
If you do venture out to Xochimilco for a longer day, make time for the Dolores Olmedo Museum. This has the best collection of Frida Kahlo’s works in Mexico, but it gets a tiny fraction of the tourists of her two former houses because of its remote location. It also contains a collection of 140 works from her husband, muralist Diego Rivera.
- Tim Leffel
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