When living in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, I had the opportunity to visit Xochimilco, a borough within the capital city most famous on a global scale for its canals and the beautifully decorated boats that float along them.
I went to Xochimilco with other volunteers from the orphanage where I was working. Although I would visit Mexico City on two other occasions during my time in Mexico, Xochimilco was my first visit to this crowded, bustling and frenetic capital city.
We traveled there in a shuttle style van and upon arriving in the vicinity of the canals, the volunteer driving the van somehow (I still don’t know) seriously scraped a parked car. He got out of the vehicle to talk along with another volunteer (both spoke fluent Spanish at least) and about five minutes later both returned. Unlike in the United States and other more “by the books countries” (I’m trying to be nice), contact information was not exchanged, insurance companies were not contacted. Rather only the money to have the matter dropped transpired, and the people involved moved on. Es Mexico, (it’s Mexico).
The canals at Xochimilco are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system that linked most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico (included in this is present day Mexico City and the ruins of Teotihuacan). Both tourists and locals flock here to ride on what appear to be colorful boats called trajineras. While they resemble gondolas, trajineras are actually modeled after pre-Hispanic vessels called acallis. The current name is an old Spanish word for “canoe.”
The purpose of taking a canal ride is one of relaxation and enjoyment. While at one time the boats were mostly used for the transport of goods, today they are primarily used for the transport of tourists (and locals who are looking for a fun time as well). The boats are all operated independently; there is no “union” of boat owners or collective companies. If you’re interested in a boat ride, you simply go up to the owner of a trajinera and negotiate a fare and length of ride. I hate doing this but hey, es Mexico. Thankfully others did the back and forth routine.
Once the fare and duration of the boat ride were decided upon, off we went climbing into the boat. Generally the boat owner is the person who acts as the operator, although not always. While serenading music was not provided by the “gondolier,” an old school boom box was, so American songs were quickly being blasted onto the Mexican canals. That’s the thing about Mexico-there are no noise ordinances…or none that people feel obliged to follow. Other boats on the water were doing the same-it was basically a rock off between groups like Journey and Bon Jovi and Mexican bandera music.
Most trajineras are marked with a name, usually a female name used to signify someone special, or it can simply be the name of the boat. While at one time, flowers and tree branches were used to decorate the boats, today their decorating comes in a more permanent form-floral and other designs are painted on them.
While the ride got a bit boring after the first couple of hours (there are 100 miles of canals) even though food, drink and music were plentiful, it was still a neat experience. Some people actually still live along the canals with boats being their only form of transportation. It greatly reminded me of Tigre, a delta community in the Buenos Aires environs. We stopped at a house that sold convenience store items along with offering a public restroom (for a price of course).
While on the waterways, it’s not uncommon for other boats that are selling random wares to come up alongside you to hawk their goods. That and mariachi bands willing to serenade you for some pesos. Sadly, no mariachi bands arrived on our trip, although once when dining outside at a restaurant in downtown Cuernavaca, a mariachi band did appear. My friend found them annoying (well, the music CAN get very loud), but hey, es Mexico.
I have no doubt that one day I’ll return to Mexico City. However, would I return to Xochimilco? Probably not…well at least not on my own where I would need to negotiate for a boat. It’s too native an experience, one in which this red headed gringa would just feel too out of practice. But for someone who first learned about the canals and boats in my outdated Spanish I textbook from high school, it was a real treat to experience in person. And where mullets and 80s style mom jeans were nowhere to be found.
Even though Xochimilco, its canals and artificial islands were granted World Heritage status, both are at risk of disappearing forever due to environmental degradation. Therefore it’s definitely one of those sights to see before it’s too late.