A Complete Guide to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco: How to Get There and What to Do
When planning our trip to Mexico City, Xochimilco was one of those things on the list that I was really on the fence about. I had seen so many pictures online and it looked amazing but could it really be all that? Was it worth the 45-minute drive out of the city? It seemed like a long way away and I was worried we'd get there and it would be this big tourist trap we'd wasted hours of our short time in Mexico City to get to. I asked the locals about it, trying to get their opinions on Xochimilco and was surprised to hear how positively even the locals, not just the tourists, spoke about it! With so many resounding responses we decided to make our way down to Xochimilco and see what all the fuss was about. And let me just say right off the bat, it was my favourite thing we did while in Mexico City and I would implore everyone to go and see it for themselves.
Xochimilco is the Venice of Mexico. It’s an enormous network of canals which spread across this southern district of Mexico City. There are over 170 km of canals which spread out in all different directions. Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico City, the indigenous people of Mexico had created an incredible network of canals which they used as both a means of transport and as a way to ensure there was a constant supply of water throughout the country. Xochimilco means “Floating Gardens" as the Aztecs created chinampas which were artificial agricultural plots rich in minerals and there they would plant thousands of flower fields. After the Spanish invasion, they dried up many of the canals in the centre of Mexico City in order to make room for modern roads. But the canals in Xochimilco remained. Today, Xochimilco is UNESCO World Heritage Site as it preserves this Aztecs technology.
How to Access
To access Xochimilco my recommendation would be to take an Uber or find a local guide who can be both your driver as well as a local 'fixer' along the way. We had met Gilberto a few days previously, he had been our Uber driver and over the course of a long trip we got to know him very well. I was the one who proposed he take us to Xochimilco and be our guide while down there and he happily accepted. It turns out he had just begun his own guide service. I felt great about being the one who approached him with the offer and not the other way around. He was incredible and if you're interested in his services you can email him directly to book a tour! If you simply want to get an Uber there are plenty of drivers always on the road to get you there and back. The trip takes about 45 minutes depending on where you're staying in the city and how heavy the traffic is that day. A one way ride with Uber costs about $10-$15 USD but if there is heavier traffic it could be as much as $25. That’s still very cheap for a 45-minute ride but just something to keep in mind.
Be sure to arrive at the 'Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas'. There are multiple embarcaderos, or ‘piers’, which service the canals but the Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas is the official pier to catch your boat and where you'll find the most honest pricing. It’s also where you'll find food, shopping and restrooms. If you're taking an Uber to the pier you might find that along the way, people on bikes will stop your Uber along the way and tell you that the pier is closed and you need to access the canals through an alternative embarcadero. This is completely untrue and a scam to get you to access their alternative dock. Our driver actually took them up on this offer one day when he was visiting on his own, to test this scam. He said he was brought to a less than savoury looking entrance with a few meagre looking boats which had clearly seen better days. He passed on their offer for a ride and then headed over to the Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas, which was, of course, not closed at all!
If you want to save some money you can always take the bus. The metro is another options but the bus requires only one mode of transportation whereas the metro requires a few transfers. Take the bus number 47-A-XAlameda Oriente towards Xochimilco / Bosque de Nativitas. It takes about an hour depending on traffic and costs 30 pesos (about $2).
You can also access Xochilmilco with a group tour. These are often combined with trips to the Frida Khalo Museum or the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. If you really want a huge, group party type of atmosphere then this is the best way to get it. Personally, I find these tours a little pressed for time, often rushing you around from place and to place. I like to take things at my own pace so we chose to do this on our own but if you’re short on time and want to see all these destinations this is a great option.
'Trajinera' is the name for the iconic brightly coloured boats which float up and down the canals. They have flat bottoms and float throughout the canals with nothing more than a long wooden ore which is controlled by your rower, just like a gondelier. In the center of the boat is a large table and there are about a dozen chairs on either side, so you can have an entire group ride on the same boat! The covered roof is perfect for keeping the sun off during hot days but if you want to sit out in the sunlight the front of the boat has ample room. The boats are vibrantly painted to resemble the flowers which used to grow on either sides of the canals hundreds of years ago. Each boat is given a different name and what you might not know is that if you know who to call, you can have your name painted on a boat just for you when you arrive. This is perfect for birthdays or quinceaneras.
How Much does a Trajinera Cost?
Getting a Trajinera for cheap isn't something you should expect when you come to Xochimilco. This isn't one of those super budget friendly excursions. The maximum rate set by the city is 500 pesos per hour, per boat (not per person as some tricky boatmen might quote you). You can try and haggle your way down but unless you have a good grasp on Spanish haggling, you'll find it pretty difficult to get the rides any cheaper than 400-450 pesos per hour. As we had our local guide with us, he was able to easily haggle the price down to 700 pesos for 2 hours. 2-hours is the minimum I would go for since it takes a while for them to get the boats out of the dock and an hour would barely get you out into the canals far enough to see the real Xochimilco. I would honestly say I wish we'd gone out for longer! Plus, the longer you go, the better chance you'll have of striking a deal! Remember to tip your boatman at the end of the trip, most of the money you pay goes to his boss and the actual driver sees little of that price so a nice tip will go a long way for them.
If you meet fellow travellers along your travels it's always worth asking them if they're interested in a trip out to Xochimilco and that way you can save a bit of money going in as a group. Just be warned that you need to arrive as a group, not just glom onto other tourists who are asking about pricing who are already at the docks. There is also the 'collectivo' boat. This larger motorized boat runs every half an hour and only costs 30 pesos each way. It only runs back and forth from one station to another so its a much shorter, less leisurely ride, but if you're looking for a budget option, this is it!
Once you have secure your boat, you set out from the dock into the canal. Most of the boats are located near the pier and blocked in by dozens of other boats. I didn’t even think it would be possible for us to get out but they did it! Making your way through the field of trajineras into the open water. This felt a little bit like a giant version of bumper cars and was so interesting to watch our driver make his way through the pile of rainbow coloured boats.
You are allowed to bring whatever food and drinks you want with you on the Trajineras. Just a few minutes away from the main pier is the Mercado Xochimilco, a great place to grab some fresh snacks and delicious treats. There are also various food stalls located along the pier when you arrive at the Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas. Depending what day of the week you visit will change what's open (the weekdays tend to have less stalls and sellers open than the weekends), but there's always something to buy both on land and on the water. That’s right, there’s food available throughout the canals as you travel. Vendors with roasted corn, coconut water, tacos, cold beer and freshly made micheladas float up and down the canals. The prices are more than you’d pay in the market but you pay for the privilege of having them coming right to you boat!
La Isla de Las Muñecas
'The Island of the Dolls' or 'La Isla de Las Muñecas' is a famous attraction along these canals. You probably have seen it on Anthony Bourdain or Buzzfeed Unsolved. Many boatmen will say they'll take you to the island in 2 hours but the truth is the real island is about 5 hours out from the main pier. There are various replicas of the island you'll see along the main route but these are not the original. While I think a 5 hours journey might be a little much for most people, the farther out you go the more and more in touch you'll get with the empty expanses of natural canals and yes, you'll eventually come to the island of the dolls. Most people who really want to visit the island chose to hire a motorboat to bring them out to the island. This place is infamous for being one of the most haunted places in Mexico City. Legend has it that the island's caretaker daughter drowned in the canals after losing her favourite doll in the river. To honour the drowned girl's spirit the father began collecting dolls and placing them all over the island. He began with a small altar surrounded with dolls and when he ran out of room began hanging the dolls all over the trees on the island. Being left out in the elements the dolls have begun to rot and take on a ghastly appearance. While the reproductions of the islands along the main canals aren't the real thing, they are pretty interesting to see as you float along.
Entertainment along the Canal
As soon as we set off into the canals, the sound of musicians playing across the waters can immediately be heard. Mariachi bands floating on their own individual boats float down the river. As they pass you by they’ll offer to board your boat and play a song or two or really as many as you want! Songs cost about 150 pesos per number but are cheaper the more songs you want. We floated by and listened to various other boats with their mariachi bands and it sounded like so much fun that when one approached us we couldn’t refuse the offer. We hired them for simply one song and asked our guide to choose his favourite tune to get played. It felt so special to have a group of almost 10 musicians board our boat and play just for us. In addition to the mariachi bands, you’ll also see various smaller boats with only 2 to 3 people playing the xylophones as they float down the canal. So much music fills these canals, then entire place feels like a giant party even in the middle of the week when we were told it would be a fairly calm day. One can only imagine has loud and exciting it would be on the weekend when this place is filled to the brim with people!
Artisans & Merchant Boats
As you float down the river people also come up to you on their boats selling various souvenirs and craft goods. You’ll see some selling embroidered blankets, others selling flower crowns inspired by the ancient flower fields. You’ll see wooden toys, traditional Mexican dolls and mini replicas of the Trajineras. While this might not be the cheapest place to buy souvenirs the experience of purchasing them on the water is pretty unique and makes for a great story.
We happily drank and ate as we floated down the river and the farther and farther out we got the more and more peaceful and quiet the canals became. When we were about an hour out from the docks, almost no boats remained with us. The canal was almost empty except for our boat and the occasional corn or drink seller. The lush trees contrasted perfectly against the bright blue sky. With all that eating and drinking you might be wondering, “how do you go to the bathroom?” Sounds like an odd question but it’s a very important one. Well, fear not! Many of the homes on the edges of the canal have installed their own public washrooms at the end of their lot. The boats simply pull up and dock near the edge of the canal and you hop out. Most of these cost about 20 pesos but trust me when you need to go you’ll be more than happy to pay the money. They’re relatively clean but I would always recommend using hand sanitizer after using them since the water isn’t potable.
Other Sights along the way
Other things you’ll see along the canals are everything from florists to independent zoos where you can see some the amazing wildlife that lives in these rivers. A lot of these are a little bit of a tourist trap and while we didn’t see the need to go and visit them it was neat to pass them by.
Since we visited on Wednesday, the river was relatively calm and I could only imagine how busy it would’ve been in the weekend when hundreds and hundreds of people come here to celebrate and also just relax with their friends. Almost like an open-air park. We saw there were signs on the outside of houses along the canals selling everything from hot chocolates to coffee to fresh tacos and while most of these were closed, only open on weekends, it was still interesting to see how all the neighbours which face onto the canal have made a life serving the people of their community.
As we floated down the river we saw four boats all tied together having an enormous party. The music could be heard from miles as well as their laughter and jaunty singing. It looked like so much fun and we waved ‘hola’ to them as we passed by. They all waved back to us with huge smiles across their faces. Everyone in the canal in some way felt like family, and I loved that feeling of being surrounded by loving, happy people.
The name of our boat was ‘Titanic’ and our guide told us that this name had been requested by a Mexican comedy show which visited the canals a few months previously. They thought the name would be a funny one for the little skit they were filming there. It was indeed very funny and every other boat we passed would get a good chuckle as we floated past them.
I loved this trip so much and absolutely didn’t wanted to end! As the day has wore on, more and more people began to float the river and on our way back to the dock we past dozens of happening parties on their way out. We finished our day in Xochimilco with a meal by the river, so we could still enjoy watching the boats and people pass by. We ate at one of the small restaurants near the Embarcadero where they even moved a table to their outside patio just for us, it felt like a private room just for us!
All my hesitations and worries about visiting here couldn’t have been further from the truth of this magical place! While you might think it would be touristy, we saw very little tourists when visiting. It was mainly locals we saw enjoying themselves and spending time with family and friends. If you have any doubts about visiting I would push those aside and do everything you can to make it out here. It truly is something so unique to Mexico City and an adventure you won’t soon forget.