Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Xochimilco

Posted by lucypopescu on July 16, 2009

The floating gardens of Xochimilco (pronouced so-chi-MEEL-co), a network of canals surrounded by gardens and small agricultural plots in the south of Mexico City, must be one of my favourite places in the world. Its name means “Place where Flowers Grow” in Nahuatl and the area tells us a lot about Mexico’s past, when it was ruled by the Aztecs, as well as providing some welcome fresh air, local colour, and an environment that genuinely calms the senses and invigorates the mind.

Xochimilco was originally a lake, an offshoot of Lago de Texcoco, upon which Mexico City is so precariously situated today. It was home to some of the most fertile gardens in the region, known as chinampas – these were islands artificially constructed out of piles of silt and rotten vegetable matter. The produce from these gardens served to feed the inhabitants of the Aztec capital – Tenochtitlán – and gradually the islands won the battle with the shallow lake, reducing it to a network of canals. I still find it hard to believe that the canals once stretched as far as the Zócalo – the historic centre of Mexico City, it’s main square, and its heart, some 15 miles north of Xochimilco – and that the gardeners used boats to bring fresh produce to the centre of the city. But then the Aztec capital was once surrounded by water. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlán (torn apart by the Spanish conquistadors) lie buried beneath Mexico city.

XochimilcoIn contrast, the remnants of this ancient farming region are still very much in evidence; the chinampas remain largely unchanged and still produce fruit and vegetables. But the reason most chilangos visit Xochimilco is not to contemplate the past but for the experience of floating down the canals in a brightly painted gondola with friends or family. You can pack a picnic if you wish, but there is really no need as there are plenty of smaller boats floating by that will sell you boiled sweetcorn served with chilli and lime, various meat tacos or barbecued pork crackling. There are also buckets of iced water, coke and beer included on your boat and jewellery salesmen are delighted to jump ship to show you their wares, should you so require.

For most people, the real highlight of Xochimilco today must be the immaculately dressed, water-borne, Marachi bands that, for a small price, will slide their boats over to your gondola, and serenade you with a song or you can hire them for the whole trip – if  you pay enough. There is nothing more uplifting than being accompanied by a small band that is willing to play (almost) any Spanish song of your choice.

Not surprisingly, with all these attractions on offer, the canals are particularly popular with families. The first time I went,  it reminded me of punting in Cambridge but with more colour and chaos. Unfortunately they also attract stag and hen parties and as the afternoon wears on the drunkenness of fellow boaters begins to manifest itself with wild dances or madcap jumping and bumping of boats.

Thankfully, the young gondoliers remain impervious to it all and instinctively know when it is time to head back to one of the many  piers. You can always ask them to take you further out to where the canals are less busy and you can leave the mayhem behind you. Here you can really appreciate the hanging willows, colourful flowers on either bank, and the peacefulness of floating down these narrow waterways, leaving behind the noise and pollution of the city. Finally, you have the time, the landscape and the inclination to transport yourself back to those pre-Hispanic times.

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