These past few weeks, while I’ve been traveling for Easter vacation, I’ve ended up in some surprising places: a construction site on the Belize/Mexico border, a Mexican supermarket bathroom where I finally succumbed to Montezuma’s Revenge, and then, ironically, the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital over which Montezuma once ruled.
But the most surprising place I found myself was Xochimilco (pronounced SOH-chee MEEL-koh), a UNESCO world heritage site in Mexico City.
The “Floating Gardens of Xochimilco” are a network of centuries’-old canals and man-made islands, developed by the Xochimilca people for agriculture, influenced but the Aztecs, and finally, maligned by the Spanish, who tried to fix flooding problems with some ill-conceived engineering projects. I personally had never heard of the place until the couple I was traveling with suggested we go.
We almost didn’t. Our plan had been to take a brief trip to an artisans’ market in the morning and then spend the afternoon floating on the canals. But the market turned out to be an incredible labyrinth of indigenous crafts and silvery jewelry, and by 3 p.m none of us was committed to traveling another hour on the metro. Lindsay had read reviews saying that although the canals had been amazing, they had devolved into a swampy dump. But Alex had read otherwise, that it was a one-of-a-kind place that needed to be seen now, since the islands were sinking and in 10 years the experience could be gone.
We found ourselves the only tourists squeezed on a train at rush hour hurtling far from Mexico City center, and then the only gringos hiking through the streets of a somewhat rundown southern suburb. We followed a half dozen embaracadero (pier) signs with ambiguously pointed arrows, possibly, we thought, in circles.
And then, seeming to have no right appearing only one block in from the grocery stores and barber shops, were hundreds of boldly painted punt boats, all primary colors and fluorescents, bobbing peacefully in a narrow canal. It was like the circus had exploded in the River Cam. We paid $350MX each for our own boat and what turned out to be an incredible hour that involved salamanders with ear wings, Hasidic Jews, beer, a Great Dane, and mariachi bands.
Getting on board
Pushing off, our punting captain
Canal-side home with window garden.
Canal-side Great Dane sizing up the punting stick
Alex buying beer from the beer boat. The woman is divvying up a caguama, the Mexican ‘forty.’
Mariachi band on board with tourists
Hasidic family being serenaded by Mariachi boat
Mariachi band members getting dinner from the dinner boat.
Boats in front of a replica of the Isla de Muñecas (Island of the Dolls). The actual island (somewhere else in the canal system) has trees decorated with decapitated and amputated dolls, a weird tribute to a girl who drowned half a century ago. Legend has it that the dolls sometimes whisper, move their limbs and open their eyes. This particular island mimics the original with creepy plastic dolls strapped to trees.
Tchotchke boat in case you need a toy drum.
Boat selling plants in front of one of the many plant nurseries along the canal, and a sign (at left) for the canal’s reptile and snake viewing center.
Alex buying pulque, a fermented drink made from agave sap.
Given a choice by our captain of whether we wanted to visit a plant nursery or the snake/reptile viewing center, for us there was no contest. It was one large room filled with aquariums into which the guide simply reached and handed us most of the terrestrial animals. We didn’t hold this guy, an axolotl, because he’s aquatic and endangered. The things that look like ear-wings are external gills. Unlike other salamanders, which develop lungs in adulthood, axolotols stay gilled. At this point axolotols are only native to Xochimilco.
Lindsay and Me
The end of our journey