Take a party. Add traditional snacks and sweets. Buy plenty of alcohol. Invite mariachis and bands playing traditional music. And put it all on colorful barges in the middle of a network of slow-flowing canals. Sound like fun? (It is.)
This is, essentially, the formula that produces Xochimilco (say “Zo-chee-MIL-ko”), a favorite fun-time destination for locals and tourists alike. While livelier on weekends, Xochimilco’s floating party goes on all week. (In fact, a friend in Mexico recalls skipping school to ride the boats and drink with friends.) And because the canals are remnants of a pre-Hispanic era waterway that once connected all the villages in the Valley of Mexico, Xochimilco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (But — hurry. That designation is in jeopardy due to progressive degradation of the canals.)
Depending on traffic, Xochilmilco is about an hour outside Mexico City proper; done correctly, a visit could be an all-day event.
Upon arrival, you’ll find yourself in a small amusement park with food stalls, trinket sellers, and public restrooms (for emergency use only, I’d say). Traditional snacks dominate the scene, with the treats on offer including pepitorias — colorful wafers, drizzled with honey and pinenuts (or pumpkin seeds):
If you’re brave enough, you could try spicy fried crickets, too:
Or just spend time watching the Danza de los Voladores (the Dance of the Flyers), staged intermittently throughout the day, much to the delight of the crowd. Four men climb to the top of a tall pole, secure their ankles to long ropes, and then “fly” in circles through the air as a central disk slowly, slowly unwinds its way down the pole.
There are also many food stalls here, serving up tacos of every description. I can’t recommend eating at these, though, as ingredients sit out in the sun, unrefrigerated, for long stretches of the day. In fact, I got the worst food poisoning of my life at one of these — so unless I bring my own picnic pack, I’m not joining in any Xochimilco feasting.
But the real reason for coming to Xochimilco, of course, are the trajineras — the brightly-painted barges (think Mexican gondolas) pushed up and down the canals by pole-wielding pilots.
Each is large enough to accommodate a central picnic table, where most families pile their goodies and coolers. Once you’ve rented a trajinera (for a half-hour, hour, two hours, or longer), all you have to do is relax, because the party moves around you. Mariachi bands float past you — and, for a small tip, they will hook up to your boat, climb aboard, and give you a serenade:
Pace yourself; there are other bands, too, and it’s nice to give them a few pesos for their music:
In addition to the live music, trajineras on the canals sell food, trinkets, houseplants, silver jewelry (buy with caution), and, of course, beer:
A trip out to Xochimilco could easily be combined with a stop at the San Angel market, and many guides will combine a trip out this way with a stop at a sprawling local market specializing in every kind of plant and flowering bush you can imagine. Load up a few friends and have a ball.
A tip: take the longest trip possible — a three-hour tour — and you’ll have a chance to see something few tourists ever do: the Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls). Local legend says the caretaker of the island, Don Julian Santana Barrera, found the body of a drowned girl in the canals. Haunted by this, he began hanging dolls of all sizes and types in the trees and vines. The resulting display is chilling, particularly near sunset — and the creepy atmosphere will make you appreciate the light and noise of Xochimilco all the more.