Technically a borough of Mexico City and located 90 minutes southeast of the center, Xochimilco is a haven of ancient Aztec culture that has its own unique fiesta atmosphere. Nicknamed by the Spaniards the ‘Venice of the New World’, why would you miss the opportunity to explore the meandering canals, whilst sipping on locally brewed cervezas, snacking on the produce of food vendors and listening to live, cheerful mariachi music?

Internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Xochimilco canals are the site of an elusive history, stepping back centuries and recognizing the transition between Aztec Mexico, Spanish-ruled Mexico and what we consider the modern day Mexico. These canals have watched cultures merge, and yet have managed to hold onto the special spirituality of ages by-gone.

xochimilco canals

Chinampas & the Canal System

The Canals:

Internationally renowned and popular among locals for a Sunday outing, the canals and their ‘trajineros’ (punting boats) are the perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city center and adventure into some of Mexico’s most celebrated history.

Before the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs had built a magnificent system of canals which they used for the transportation of goods and to ensure each borough had sufficient water. They extended over the majority of the Valley of Mexico which restricted cities such as Tenochtitlan and Xochimilco to mere islands. Over the years, as the water tables have dropped, the canals have slowly filled in and are constantly disappearing.

Endemic to these waters is the endangered Axolotl. This amphibian was used as medicine, food and a ceremonial object during the Aztec empire; celebrated as an incarnation of the God Xolotl, brother of Quetzalcoatl.

Chinampas:

The canals of Lake Xochimilco were initially constructed alongside artificial plots of agricultural land called ‘chinampas’. The direct translation of Xochimilco, is ‘floating gardens’; therefore etymologically, the chinampas gave the barrio its name. They were built around a millennia ago to increase agricultural production and by the time the Spanish arrived, they were an important part of the Aztec economy.

Today, only 5,000 of these distinctive chinampas remain in their original form. Why not come on one of our cultural tours that will take you into the heart of Xochimilco where you can explore and learn about the wealth of history?

Urban Legends

Isla de las Muñecas:

As legend has it, the Island of Dolls was created when Don Julián Santana Barrera witnessed the drowning of a young girl; he tried to help, but by the time he reached her, she had already died. He came across a doll nearby, and assuming it was hers, he attached it to a tree as a sign of respect. After this, he began to hear whispers, footsteps and painful wails following him in the darkness, despite the fact he was hidden deep inside the Xochimilco woods and miles from civilisation.

He spent the next 50 years of his life hanging more dolls, some missing limbs, in an attempt to calm the girl’s spirit. It is said that he died of a heart attack in 2001. He was found in the exact spot he found the girl 50 years prior.

The location has global traction and visitors continue to hang more dolls. Locals describe the island as ‘charmed’, not haunted, although travelers have claimed that the dolls whisper to them.

Explore this haunted island with us… If you dare!

La Llorona:

Rumour has it this lady drowned her two sons in the Xochimilco canals when she discovered her husband was cheating on her; she then committed suicide in the river, overcome with grief and anger. Translated as the ‘Weeping Woman’, she spends her days scouring towns and canals searching for her sons and kidnapping children mistaking them for her own.

It is said that if you hear her wails you are supposed to run in the opposite direction; her cries could bring misfortune or death to your family.

Unmissable Festivals

Día de Muertos:

Although celebrated across Mexico, it is particularly atmospheric in the Xochimilco canals thanks to their varied ancestral and legendary history. By day you will find food stalls, local dancers and mariachi bands performing in the plazas; by night, you can embark on an eerie ‘trajinero’ journey down the ghostly canals. Your driver will recount the story of La Llorona before you reach a lake where Mexican myths will be played out in a huge light and sound bonanza.

On Isla de las Muñecas, brave travelers can navigate their way through the canals by candelight.

El Carnaval de Xochimilco:

The Carnival dates back to the era of the Great Tenochtitlan. When the Spanish arrived, they used this opportunity to don masks and costumes to mock the new governing power and their European mannerisms. The best known attraction is the ‘brinco’; a leaping dance led by chinelos.

The Carnival was banned by the Spanish rulers, but has recently been recovered in order to restore an important part of the community’s heritage and identity. It takes place at the beginning of March.

La Noche de los Deseos:

Taking place annually in February and inspired by the Japanese tradition ‘Toro Nagashi’, you can dedicate a candle-lit paper lamp to a deceased loved one, or someone you treasure. Your dedications will be made to a slow and romantic jazz and blues soundtrack.

La Feria Nacional de Cerveza:

This 3 day-long festival in March will let you taste test more than 60 types of lager alongside artisan tapas. Musical performances are there for your entertainment and a bus is provided to take you back to central Mexico City at the end of the day.

So, how do you reach the Xochimilco Canals?

It seems like a long way away when you’re settled into the bustling capital of Mexico City but we promise you it’s so worth the tiny effort to get there. Going via public transport will take you between an hour and 90 minutes. Take Metro Line 2 (the blue line) all the way to the end, alighting at Tasqueña. From here you should head through the turnstiles towards the doors to Tren Ligero. Tren Ligero does not accept Metro tickets, so you will need to buy a CDMX re-loadable card (which can be shared between multiple people) for MX$10 and load it with MX$3 per-person one-way.

Xochimilco is the final stop. From the station you can follow the blue signs that will lead you to the embarcadero, or just follow the inevitable crowd.

If you fancy an easier journey, why not come with us to Xochimilco and Coyoacán and learn more about the impressive Frida Kahlo as well.

To get to the Isla de las Muñecas from Xochimilco is a further 2 hour gondola ride.

xochimilco canals

Sadly, like many of the worlds most historic and culturally rich locations, these canals are disappearing rapidly so book your trip soon to avoid disappointment!