Xochimilco: The Venice of Mexico Where Gondolas Meet Mariachis

James Jackson

James Jackson

October 10, 2023

5 min read

When you think of canals and gondolas, an ancient Mexican lake might not be the first place that jumps to mind. But head to Xochimilco, a set of Aztec canals spanning just over 100 miles through 6,400 acres of wetland, and on any sunny day, you’ll find hundreds of brightly colored, wooden flat-bottomed boats, called trajineras, plying the waters. 

Xochimilco was once a giant lake, but in 1519, the Aztecs built thousands of chinampas, islands created out of highly fertile mud, forming canals in the waters in between. The chinampas were used for growing flowers (chinampa means “flower garden” in the Indigenous Nahuatl language) and produce. Today, they are used for agriculture, and visitors can see farmers tending to their crops from their trajineras, producing 55 tons of vegetables (including talamayota pumpkins) per day for the markets. The lake is also the only remaining home of the adorable but critically endangered axolotl, an aquatic salamander. 

Xochimilco canals from above

The area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and today it’s popular as a relaxing day out of the city. The best way to experience it is by renting a trajinera at one of the many docks along the canals. As you glide along the canals, propelled only by the strength of your trajinero pushing off the canal bed with a long pole, you will be greeted by a sensory assault. There’s the lush greenery of Xochimilco's floating gardens, the bright colors of the passing boats, and the sounds of the famous Mariachi music, with bands playing from their very own boats or hopping on board passing boats to play for tips. 

While you can bring food and drink, there’s also plenty to purchase from floating vendors who travel along the canals, including popular snacks like elote (corn on the cob covered with mayo and chili powder) and drinks like the michelada (creative beer cocktails sold by the liter). Handmade souvenirs and flower crowns are easy to come by.

But it’s not just color, tunes, and chelas (beers). There is also the eerie Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls), set up by local man Julian Santana Barrera, who, according to legend, was haunted by the spirit of a girl who had drowned in the canals looking for her doll. He became obsessed with collecting more and more abandoned dolls, putting them around the island for protection, with visitors adding to the collection. Whatever the truth of the legend, seeing dozens of rotting, dismembered dolls is certainly a sinister sight.

Xochimilco can be all things to all people. A raucous party on the weekend or a contemplative excursion, but whichever you opt for, the palpable sense of culture and history runs deeper than the waters of the canals themselves.

boats at Xochimilco

Getting there

  • Getting there: Located in the southern part of Mexico City, Xochimilco is easily accessible as the last station of the Tren Ligero light rail line, or by Uber, with the trip costing about $10-20 and taking about an hour depending on traffic.
  • Average price for a Going flight to Mexico City: $271 RT

How to do it

  • Best time to go: Xochimilco is great year-round. If you want a quiet day trip, go during the week, but for the full raucous experience, go on a Sunday along with the many Mexican families on a day trip. Warning: it can get crowded and noisy.
  • Cost: The colorful boats can accommodate groups of up to 20 people, paying just 60 pesos per person per hour. Solo travelers are advised to join a collectivo group boat, but groups can rent their own for 500 pesos per boat per hour. So it makes sense to bring friends, or make them when you get there! 
  • Tips and considerations: Travelers recommend avoiding the Belem dock, where guides can be pushy. Head to Nuevo Nativitas instead. Make sure to carry cash for snacks, drinks, and to use the restroom; the vendors at Xochimilco are usually cash-only. 

Read more about Mexico

James Jackson

James Jackson

Freelance Writer

James Jackson is a multilingual journalist and writer drawn to Europe by the news, but his heart lies in Latin America, which he visits frequently.

Published October 10, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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