Having lived in Mexico City since the start of July, I can't believe it's taken me over 3 months to visit this place, since it's one of the most famous attractions in the city and has been since the 1920s. Xochimilco (soch-ee-milk-oh) is an area located to the south of the city, known for its series of canals, the remains of old Lake Xochimilco. Quick trivia here, this was home to canoeing and rowing competitions when Mexico hosted the Olympics back in 1968.
~ Getting There and When To Go ~
Xochimilco isn't just a bit south of the city, it's a long way away, so much so that it took me over an hour to get there and I already live south of the centre. Metros only run as far as Tasqueña (end of Line 2, the blue one) and from there you can either catch the Tren Ligero ("electric train" or as I would call it...a tram) or take a Pasero (mini-bus). The former costs 2 pesos per trip, the latter about 3 pesos, and with both the final destination of Xochimilco is where you want to get off. We went on a Sunday and it was nicely busy but not packed - we got a boat with no waiting, and the waterways weren't congested. You can go mid-week but the place is deserted, and if you keep reading you'll see why that's not the bonus it often is at touristy places.
~ The Experience ~
The reason I hadn't been until now was because everyone had told me you have to go in a group for the authentic Xochimilco experience, and when I arrived here everyone I met had already been. This weekend though we planned a trip for a group of us, and I finally got to go.
We arrived in Xochimilco mid-afternoon and headed straight to the market to buy food since it's cheaper (and better quality) and the stuff you can buy once you're on the boat. Armed with tacos and tortilla chips, and ice creams and drinks, we headed to the nearest "Embarcadero" or boat landing. There are many of these throughout the town, and they all connect to each other so it doesn't matter where you begin. We got off to a bad start when a little boat man tried to convince us the charge was per person and not per boat (despite bilingual signs to the contrary) but after we got up and left, one of his colleagues stopped us, assured us we were correct, and said he would take us round himself for the price on the sign, so we relented.
The area we left from was pretty but not stunning - just a sweet little bridge and some houses with great canal views. However after less than 10 minutes of being punted we came out onto the main canal and our trip really began. The trajineras (long boats) are very colourful and being on the canals is like being in a carnival or at least at Gay Pride. However, once you're on board you cannot see much of your own boat, and what you can see - like the inside of the roof - is likely to be tatty, so the best views are of the other boats you sail past. It's for this reason it's much better to go at weekends when lots of people are out on the water, so you can admire their boats as they pass.
The boats seat varying numbers of people (up to 20 people) and are rented by the hour. They have moveable chairs and a long table down the middle, and many people take one for a water-based picnic. We had our food with us, but if we hadn't had we could have purchased everything from quesadillas to tacos to drinks to popcorn from the service boats that sail up and down the canal. We could also have pulled over and docked at one of a handful of cafes and stands on the banks of the river.
The boats are named after different girls, with traditional Mexican names being things like Lupita or Maria Elena. Obviously Zoë didn't feature (it's the name of a Mexican rock band, but nothing more over here) though we did find a Laurita for Laura, and an Elisabeth for Lis.
We sailed for an hour, enjoying the views and the food. This part of Mexico reminds me so much of the Jungle Book, and it's really different from the main city centre. We passed little garden centres selling a range of plants (something Xochimilco is known for) and saw lots of other party boats as well as local people on their own things punting up and down since like Venice there are few proper roads here. We pointed out the local wildlife to each other, and admired the jungle-style surroundings as we sailed.
One of the options is to have a Mariachi band attached to your boat,, who serenade you while you float. We opted out of this, but managed to enjoy the music of several different troupes as we sailed up and down because a few boats had booked them, and they could hardly stop us listening to their music too. We also had the option of a nature guide, stops at an Aquarium etc etc, but we just went for the basic, straight forward trip since we wanted to relax and enjoy the picnic and the scenery.
We had booked an hour but our punter offered us a deal of a second hour for a cheaper price, so we decided to stay aboard, which was great since an hour isn't really long enough to see everything (plus you can only sail for 30 mins before you have to turn round). We had a stop for maybe 15 minutes at one of the main Embarcaderos where there is a huge market full of touristy souvenir stands, places to buy food and drink, toilets etc. This is the place where dozens of trajineras moor and therefore was a fab place for a picture, with them all lined up together. If we hadn't wanted to buy here, we could also have bought from little sailing shops which, like the food boats, plough up and down the canals offering their wares. Exact change is useful unless you want to unintentionally tip some of these people. One thing to be wary of is that some water does inevitably spill into the boats near the edges, so be careful where you put your own bags and anything you buy from these people. My feet were dry the entire time, but I was still conscious of the water seeping in around the sides, and kept my bag on my lap.
You hardly feel like you're on a boat as you sail because the punting is so smooth. There is little rocking, and virtually no waves, so those with minor sea sickness should be able to cope nicely. You cannot punt your own rented boat like you can in some places, but we didn't want to anyway, since it was much more fun to sit and gossip while a nice young man shunted us up and down. The canals are not too clean, but they're for sailing on, not swimming in after all, and they certainly lacked the distinctive smell of Venice in summer.
~ Verdict ~
This was such a fun way to spend an afternoon, and cheap too. We paid $140 pesos for the first hour, and $100 pesos for the second hour, so $240 pesos, or £12 in total. Between 4 of us, that's really reasonable, and we could have fitted up to 12 people on our boat. If you are travelling in a smaller group, you can also take a shared boat, which cost 10 pesos (50p) per person per 30 minutes, though you have less say in where you sail, or where you stop. All prices are all inclusive - you are not expect to tip the boat man, or buy him a drink or anything silly like that (though someone who shall remain nameless did offer him a cigarette at one point). Considering 140 pesos per hour is basically what I make here as an English teacher, and they have no overheads apart from the maintenance of the boats, I began to wonder if I was in the wrong job...
Xochimilco is a must-do part of an Mexico City itinerary, just read the signs when you get there (they're in English too), know your rights, and don't let them rip you off. I think we were unlucky to get the first guy (especially since we had two Mexicans in our group, and Laura and I aren't even stand-out gringas, being quite dark). You can do Xochimilco on an organised tour, combined with Coyoacan or the University, but you'll pay through the nose for it, and will likely go mid week, so miss the authentic experience, since it's only really weekends when the locals come out in their droves and take to the water.
Most of the boats we had were filled with families, and the children in particular seemed to be having a great time, lying on the ends trailing their fingers in the water in a way you would never be allowed to do in Europe. Obviously, they couldn't run up and down (memories of Phoebe in Friends saying "You NEVER run on a barge" spring to mind) but they seemed to enjoy either the finger dipping, or sitting there with their parents eating and laughing.
Definitely recommended. I'm glad my 600th review got to be on such a special place.
~ Useful Links & Some Photos ~