Going to Xochimilco Mexico City is one of the trips that you just have to make when you’re in this part of the world. When people talk about visiting this place, what they’re usually referring to is the network of canals known as The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco rather than the surrounding area. The photogenic, brightly coloured gondolas, or Xochimilco Trajineras, that cruise up and down the waterways are what have made it so popular among both foreign and Mexican tourists alike.
Granted, Xochimilco has got a very mixed reputation, with some people absolutely loving it and others despising it with a passion. And I’ve seen it variously described as the Mexican Venice, a cultural booze cruise, and even a youth club on water.
But here’s the thing - it’s impossible to know which camp you’ll fall into unless you go and experience it for yourself.
I can tell you that from personal experience, because I didn’t have very high expectations of our trip here. But in the end we had a fantastic day out and discovered there’s a lot more to Xochimilco than the canals.
How to Get to Xochimilco Mexico City
Most non Mexicans tend to visit Xochimilco Mexico City on a tour, some of which include various other attractions like a visit to Frida Kahlo's house or Teotihuacan. If that works for you then great, but it’s super easy to get to Xochimilco by your own on public transport, and there’s much more to do here than just ride on the famous Xochimilco trajineras. You can easily spend a whole day here, time which you won’t be afforded if you choose to visit in a tour group.
How to get to Xochimilco by public transport depends on where you’re starting from, but your first point of call is to get yourself to your local metro station. If you’ve not used the metro system in Mexico City then don’t worry, it’s just the same as the metro anywhere in the world.
Yes it gets crowded at times, but it’s super convenient and extremely cheap at only $5 MXN per journey. We got told various bad stories about pickpocketing, but in truth you should be aware of this no matter which city’s metro you’re using. Use your common sense, watch your things and you’ll be fine.
Start by navigating your way to Tasqueña station which is at the very end of the Blue Line 2. From Tasqueña there is a dedicated train called the Tren Ligero which starts in Tasqueña and finishes in Xochimilco.
It’s basically an overground metro line which goes all the way there. If you don’t have one of the rechargeable cards which you can use on all the main forms of public transport in Mexico City then you’ll need to get one to use the Tren Ligero. You can do this at any station including Tasqueña. When you arrive, you’re in the heart of Xochimilco and can easily walk to all of the points of interest.
When you leave the station you’ll be confronted by lots of guys in official looking lanyards pointing you in the direction of the embarcaderos or ports where the trajineras launch from. They actually work for the different companies that run the trajineras so will try and get you to go to their particular launch point. Don’t feel bullied or harassed into going with them, remember it’s always your choice where you spend your money.
The History of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco
Incredibly, the whole of Mexico City is built on a vast lake, and Xochimilco is no exception, although the actual construction of the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco was slightly different.
The so called gardens are actually named chinampas, and far from floating, they are in fact islands that remain permanently in situ. They were constructed by the local population way back in pre-hispanic times, by packing mud and silt from the bottom of the lake high enough until it broke the surface. They’re held together with the roots of trees, so though they’re man made, they’re created entirely from natural resources.
Thanks to the nutrient rich soil in the lakes and the year round abundance of water, these islands are ideal for farming. The Aztecs used to cultivate huge amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables on the chinampas, and in part you can see that they’re still used for growing things and are covered in lush greenery. Nowadays though they’re largely maintained for their touristic value rather than for farming.
A Trip on the Xochimilco Trajineras
The first thing to know about a ride on the Xochimilco trajineras is that they’re not especially cheap. In fact, if your negotiation and haggling skills aren’t up to scratch then they can work out to be pretty damned expensive. There’s no fixed price as such (though there is a maximum hourly rate) so you have to barter for a good price depending on what you want. You hire them by the hour, and generally people tend to go for two hours at a minimum.
The hourly maximum rate is set by the local government body, and when we went it was $450 mexican pesos per hour. This price is for the boat, not per person so obviously the more people you have the cheaper it becomes for each of you. Be prepared for some extortionate quotes though, as the operators like to try their luck whenever possible.
We made a fatal error in our negotiations, as the guy we were speaking to caught us off guard with an offer of $1,900 MXN for a two hour ride. Unfortunately my first counter was to tell him how ridiculous that was because we knew that the maximum rate was $450 MXN per hour. It didn’t leave us very much wiggle room, so when he reduced his rate to $900 it was pretty much impossible to barter down any more.
To avoid making the same mistake I’d suggest going in with a low ball offer and working from there. If you’re not happy with the price then there are lots of operators so don’t be afraid to move on and try another one. We were not really in the mood to trawl up and down for a cheaper price, so aware that we weren’t getting totally ripped off just went for this. If you’re not confident negotiating in Spanish, don’t worry too much as most of the salespeople speak fluent English.
Once you’re on the boat, all you need to do is kick back, relax and enjoy the carnival as you get ferried around the busy waterways. The canals are crowded with hundreds of boats going up and down, particularly on the weekends, everyone enjoying a few drinks, a bite to eat and the music.
Many of the trajineras have full mariachi bands on, there are also xylophone players, singers and brass bands playing everything from Mexican classics to modern chart music. For a small fee they will either attach their boat to yours, or even jump on for a few minutes and play a selection of tunes.
It’s a bit like a floating market in parts, as trajineras laden with all kinds of traditional Mexican arts and crafts work their way along the waterways. There are also plenty of food stalls and drinks sellers, so there’s no need to worry if you’ve not brought anything on with you. You can get everything from beer and pulque to water and fruit juices, BBQ corn and tacos to freshly cooked steaks, all right there on the water.
What Else to do in Xochimilco
Before you get on your Xochimilco trajinera, it’s a good idea to pick up some food and drinks for the excursion, and the cheapest and most interesting place to do this is at the market. Visiting Xochimilco Market is a great experience in itself and shouldn’t be missed.
The colorful, bustling, traditional Mexican Market is principally housed in a vast colonial style building, but spills out freely onto the surrounding streets. The sights and smells are enough to get you excited, and there are different sections for anything you might want.
There’s a large fresh produce area where the fruit and vegetables are beautifully laid out in immaculate, symmetrical piles. There’s a whole aisle of taco makers where you can buy them by the kilo, freshly made and still warm for about $12 MXN.
Wandering around you’ll see everything from pet stores selling goldfish and hamsters, to little outlets selling chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and dried fruit and nuts. You can also get all sorts of prepared foods like barbacoa (BBQ goat), nopales (cactus), mole (meat in a savoury chocolate sauce) and various other different Mexican dishes.
Check Out a Traditional Pulqueria
Just a couple of blocks away from the market on the corner of Avenue 5 de Mayo and Francisco I. Madero, you’ll find the truly incredible the Pulqueria el Templo de Diana. If you have no idea what a pulqueria is, that’s because they’re a dying form of bar that specialises in a very traditional Mexican, alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap of the agave plant.
Pulque is a hard drink to describe both in its taste and its effects, so I’m going to put in a quick disclaimer here that it’s not everybody’s bag and you may well hate the stuff! It’s quite a thick, gloopy, white substance, so just the texture is off putting to some people. It’s also extremely sour in a way that will make your face scrunch up the first time you try it.
Having said that, I personally really enjoy pulque as I’m not a big fan of sweet drinks, so it suits my taste buds perfectly. But worry not, if you don’t like the natural variety, it also comes in an endless number of surprising and whacky flavours.
At Templo de Diana they range from fruity tastes like mango, tamarind and strawberry right through to a strange concoction called an Ostión.
The Ostión contains tomato juice, chile sauce and a healthy portion of oysters and prawns thrown in for good measure and it’s served with a side of crackers. Clearly we had to try one, and though it sounds a bit bonkers, it was actually really tasty.
Drink in the Culture
There are a number of historic churches in Xochimilco that are worth taking a look at and are walking distance from the city centre. San Bernardino de Siena is probably the most famous but there are a few dotted around, each with their own unique appearance and backstory.
Xochimilco is full of life and an exciting place to just wander around the backstreets between the market and the embarcaderos where the trajineras leave from. There are lots of street food stalls, open fronted shops selling everything from trinkets to trainers, and we even saw a family riding through the streets on horseback.
Though the trajineras are undoubtedly the main attraction here, it's a really great place to spend a day. You'll get a totally different impression from many of the other main areas of Mexico City and get to enjoy some totally unique experiences at the same time. At the very least, go so you can make your own mind up as to whether it's a great cultural experience or a horrific, tacky tourist attraction.
Did you know that Mexico City has its own network of canals? Have you been to Xochimilco, and if so did you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments below!