Travel back in time to the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán by taking a boat trip through its last remaining canals at UNESCO World Heritage site Xochimilco, before visiting the world’s greatest collection of artwork by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Museo Dolores Olmedo.
It is hard to believe as you walk around Mexico City, that the remains of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, are buried beneath your feet. Rivalling both Paris and Constantinople, this “Venice of the New World” was built upon Lake Texcoco. The arriving Spanish documented their astonishment upon seeing what they described as an “enchanted vision” featuring monumental architecture, residents navigating the canal systems by canoe and cultivating highly-productive, artificial floating gardens or “chinampas”. The most impressive of all the Aztec cities, it was then ransacked and destroyed; its materials used to build the present day Mexico City.
Whenever I visit the Templo Mayor museum in the Zocalo, the city’s main square, and see the magnificent artefacts that have been recovered from the ruins, I find myself daydreaming about what Tenochtitlán and its floating gardens might have looked like; Mexico’s Babylon.
Thankfully, tourists can catch a glimpse of the city’s original splendour by visiting Xochimilco (Náhuatl for ‘place where flowers grow’), a borough of Mexico City, where more than 80km of canals still remain, rambling past the fertile chinampas that are still used to produce food, flowers and plants.
Here tourists and locals alike hire intricately painted trajineras, or “Mexican gondolas,” and are paddled along the waterways by silent gondoliers, passing fragrant floating nurseries and the endearing island-houses of the locals who still use canoes as part of their daily lives.
I’m told that the trajineras used to be decorated with real flowers which although costly, must have been an amazing sight to behold. Today these wooden boats are painted in colours that are equally as vivid, and recently, Mexico City’s mayor announced a plan to start building them out of recycled plastic in order to make them more sustainable. I hope they look just like the wooden ones though, as I think they are just beautiful and so unique.
As an avid gardener, I couldn’t resist hopping off at one of the nurseries to wander around the huge array of flowers and plants, some of them native to Xochimilco. The air is thick with the scent of gardenia and jasmine flowers and when sticking my nose right into a gardenia to breathe in its heavenly fragrance, I almost snorted this beastie right up my nostril.
Although the situation is definitely conducive to lying back and daydreaming that you’re floating through a Monet painting, the party atmosphere on some of the trajineras is just too infectious to resist and with room for up to 20 people, they are the perfect place for a floating fiesta. Didn’t bring party necessities? No worries, you can purchase everything you need, from beer to music, without even having to move from your boat.
As you amble along, you can order food from any number of vendors who draw up beside you offering mole, corn and other traditional dishes all cooked aboard their wooden boat using a fire stove (I’m sure there’d be a pesky law against this back home). I ordered the mole but it took us a while to find someone who wasn’t offering a slightly watered-down version. He didn’t have a business card but I managed to get a picture of him so look out for him while you are there!
Of course no Mexican fiesta is complete without some ice-cold beers or micheladas (my favourite) and there are boats for those too! You’ll recognise the drinks sellers by the cooler boxes they carry on their boats. No need to bulk buy. You can just call them over each time and that way, your drinks are always cold ☺
You can also purchase various handcrafts and cut flowers from other boatsmen who will be only too happy to pull up beside you while you browse what’s on offer.
Passengers are also free to bring along their own food, (alcoholic) drinks and music, so don’t let your budget put you off this unique experience!
The party really starts when you hail a passing mariachi boat and have them hook their boat onto yours, and serenade you for as long as you can afford. It really is worth it though, as they are obviously trained musicians and their songs were so beautiful that I almost got teary.
We danced as though health and safety rules had never existed and we also passed large groups who had hooked two boats together to form an ample floating dance floor upon which to gyrate and shriek the day away. It was fun to watch and I swore I wouldn’t leave Mexico City without having at least one party on board a trajinera.
I had a fantastic day on the Xochimilco waterways. It astounds me that in just over an hour, I can be far from Mexico City’s maddening crowd and drifting lazily along a canal in a floating piece of art. As I watched the parties and family get-togethers on the boats we passed, I got a real appreciation for the importance of “convivio” in Mexico, of coming together with those dear to you in celebration of a special occasion or perhaps just life itself. Mexicans never need an excuse and I love that about them.
As I glanced down the lesser-paddled waterways flowing off to the sides, I saw the ripples caused by solitary canoeists navigating liquid avenues that stretched into the distance. I could make out farmers with their harvests and families heading for homes beyond the river bends. Since watching them disappear out of sight, I am curious to know more about the less touristy side of Xochimilco so I’m going to look into the possibility of an ecological tour and I’ll make sure to post about it.
If you are going to go to Xochimilco, leave room in your day for the Museo de Dolores Olmedo which houses the world’s largest collection of work by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Housed in a restored 16th Century hacienda, set amongst beautifully landscaped gardens, the museum is well worth a visit just to take in the surroundings as you wander among the resident peacocks, water fowl and Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintle dogs.
The restoration was overseen by Dolores Olmedo herself, and most of the Xoloitzcuintle dogs you see there today are direct descendants of one gifted to Dolores by Diego. Here I am stroking a little bit of history:
As an art lover (but by no means an expert), I had read up on the lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo before coming to Mexico City and it helps to know something about them to really appreciate their motivations. I can honestly say that nothing compares to seeing their work in real life!
I could have sat for hours in front of Diego Rivera’s sunset series, a collection he painted while staying in the home of Dolores Olmedo in Acapulco. However I was more drawn to Frida’s work and as I mentioned in my video post, I felt more able to empathise with her experience. Even if you know nothing about her, her art depicts her trauma and passion so well that you cannot help but be moved by it. I’m really looking forward to visiting her house next.
Tree huggers delight
Once back on land, Alicia offered to drive me to see one of the sights that tourists often overlook in Xochimilco. Tucked away in a beautiful plaza in Calle Sabino, you will find the enormous Cuauhtémoc Ahuehuete Tree (Montezuma cypress) believed to have been gifted by Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc. Said to be between 600 and 700 years old, the tree is mighty impressive and very huggable ☺ The walls of the quaint peach chapel across the road are said to hold its story.