Last Updated on March 21, 2023
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Updated for 2022 / 2023
By Jim Ferri
At first she didn’t want to go to Xochimilco outside of Mexico City.
“No one goes there anymore,” my wife told me, “it’s way too dirty.”
I trusted her opinion, since she had lived in Mexico for several years and knew the area well. But I’d heard many good things about Xochimilco, Mexico City’s “little Venice,” which is also known as Lake Xochimilco. It’s about an hour south of the capital.
I was all up for visiting it, and told her that many things had probably changed, since it looked clean and unique in recent photos I had seen. “In fact,” I told her, “Xochimilco, Mexico is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
It was Sunday morning in Mexico City, and we finally wound up going. At the end of the day we were both glad we did, as Lake Xochimilco turned out to be a wonderful experience. It was a great day trip from Mexico City.
Off to “Little Venice”
Xochimilco (“so-chee-mil-co”), commonly known as the “Floating Gardens” in Mexico, is a remnant of the ancient “chinampa” agricultural system. It was developed by the pre-Aztec people who lived on this Southeastern edge of former Lake Texcoco.
The only remaining remnant of Lake Xochimilco, it is series of canals on which you punt about on colorful little boats. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also unique and it attracts both Mexicans and tourists. Everyone seems to find it a great place to relax for the better part of a day. My wife was also surprised as to how well it’s been cleaned up over the past few years.
Punting Through Xochimilco
It was about noon when we arrived at Xochimilco’s little marketplace. We walked pass the stands selling foods, T-shirts, chess sets and all sorts of things, and headed straight for the embarcadero. There we found a jumble of colorful boats pushed together like so much technicolor flotsam.
When we agreed on a price (prices are posted on a per-hour basis but you can negotiate a bit) I began to wonder just how we were going to reach our boat on the far side.
But our punter walked us out across the boats, almost as we were moving across stepping-stones on someone’s lawn. All of them had female names emblazoned on their tops. There was the Conchita, Rosa Maria, Jasmine… and we soon reached the Margarita, my wife’s name in Spanish, interestingly enough.
If you were anywhere else in Mexico, or anywhere for that matter, you would think Lake Xochimilco’s Crayola-colored fleet was exceptionally gaudy. But here it was mesmerizing, and added to the fiesta-like atmosphere of the place. With nothing but the sounds of birds chirping all around us, our punter pushed us out into the lazy estuary.
We moved silently upstream to join boats of all different sizes, some wide, others narrow, but all with tables on them where people were sitting, eating and partying. Along the verdant banks dozens of smaller boats glided in and out of our little flotilla, offering flowers, blankets, trinkets, all sorts of things.
Meals Cooked Boat-Side
A few of these small, Xochimilco boats had little stoves on them, with women cooking hot tortillas on the spot, while their husbands punted them about these canals of Mexico. Others peddled soft drinks, popcorn and candied apples. There were also music boats, with mariachis and marimba musicians serenading the partyers. None push themselves on us, but just slid silently by waiting for us to call them over.
Some boats, like ours, had only a few people aboard while others had families of six or seven. There were also larger groups, and the entire waterway became a floating fiesta, Xochimilco-style.
It was something I had never experienced before. As we glided silently along the water with greenery and flowers all about us, and nothing but the sound of birds and marimba music in the distance, it’s was not only relaxing, it was almost surreal.
How to Get There:
You can reach Lake Xochimilco, Mexico via train or car. By train, take metro Line Two to Taxqueña and then the light railway out to Xochimilco.
Cost of the boat is 200 pesos per hour; we took the minimal tour (approximately 1½ hours) for 300 pesos, about US$15.