Punts and pints on a Mexican canal

Before the Spanish turned up in the Americas, the area surrounding what is now known as Mexico City was an expansive lake. The Aztecs had already started establishing a canal system, and most of the lake was filled in over time by the new settlers. 

What remains is part of the original canal and “floating” flower & vegetable garden system, around the town of Xochimilco – pronounced HOCKEY-MILKO.

I wonder if the Aztec ancestors of this place could ever have imagined the riot of colour and chaos that takes over the canals every weekend as tourists and locals turn up to sit around on flower-decked trajineras (long punt boats), drink beer and be pushed along by eager pole bearing boatmen. 

And that is exactly what we found ourselves doing one sunny Sunday afternoon with Sarah and a bunch of her work colleagues.
There seemed to be hundreds of trajineras with touts calling out to attract customers, and Sarah’s colleague did a mighty fine job of negotiating a great price (700 pesos) for our 3 hour cruise on the “Mariana”.

It then took us no time at all to settle into the spirit of the adventure, ordering our first round of micheladas, the famous Mexican drink of lime juice, beer and a dusting of salt and chilli powder around the rim of the glass. There are good and bad variations of this drink so beware, it can be hit & miss. Ours on the day were exemplary, if maybe just a little heavy on the chilli.

For the rest of the afternoon we just kicked back while revelling in the carnival atmosphere of hundreds of passing boats, some with mariachi bands, brass bands, salsa dancers and basically happy party people out for some Sunday fun.  For a small fee the entertainers will hook up to a boat for private performances, but really there’s no need for that because there is music and dancing everywhere.
Plenty of food & drink vendors cruised up alongside to ensure we were well sustained. Offerings straight from their boats included beer, water and fresh made juices, BBQ corn, tacos and even freshly cooked steaks. A veritable Mexican smorgasbord.

It was a bit like a floating market with vendors selling all kinds of trinkets and traditional Mexican arts & crafts as they worked their way along the waterways. Sarah and I managed to haggle for some really nice floor rugs at only 400 pesos each (I only bought on the promise of Sarah taking mine back to Australia for me)

Xochimilco has a mixed reputation, and according to various reviews some people absolutely love it and others despise it with a passion. I’ve seen it described as the Mexican Venice, and cultural booze cruise. 

For us it was a brilliant and a totally unique experience.  We loved it for all (and despite) its gaudiness and bustling activity and if we ever have the chance we would head out there and do it again though on a more sedate week day, to take in the unique surroundings.
During the week when not being overrun by weekend warriors, the canals are more peaceful and practical, with farmers and local residents plying along the more bucolic water avenues, with an occasional visitor heading out.

And you know how everyone waves to each other when passing another boat, well the same happens here on the Xochimilco canal, and we would call out SALUD

Something for certain that the ancient Aztecs would be devastated by is the imminent death of this unique canal system. In fact it is believed the canals have been dying since the Spanish arrived and started draining and filling the broad lake system.

The canals are dying due to serious neglect, massive pollution including sewerage and pesticides, and the introduction of exotic fish species such as carp. Back in the 1970’s the government dumped huge numbers of carp into the canals in an effort to help feed more people during a starvation crises. Of course that became a disaster as well, with little hope of ever eradicating those universally destructive fish.

Did our visit to the UN World Heritage listed area have a negative impact on the canals? Maybe. I don’t know, and the canals’ predicament was not something I was aware of before we visited that day.  But I would hope that current and future authorities can recognise the ecological, commercial and lifestyle value these canals provide to the eco system, to locals and visitors alike, clean it up and prevent future degradation.

Xochimilco tidbits

  • Read here about the devastating impact of carp to the population of native axolotis in the canals
  • Read here about the degradation of the canal
  • We caught an Uber from our Airbnb to Xochimilco for around 200 pesos ($15AUD), but you can also get a train from Tasquena for way less money and perhaps a more interesting experience
  • Different tours operate from Mexico City for those not comfortable navigating the whole outing on their own
  • There is also a boat taxi service on the canal that provides point to point transport with various stops along the way. It’s not the same as the trajineras so be aware if that’s not what you want
  • You can buy all your food and drink supplies from market stalls before getting on the boat. It is cheaper than  buying from the vendors on the canal, though maybe not as much fun
  • I’ve read that it is really nice to be on the canals around sunset, maybe we’ll do that next time
  • The cost for taking a trajinera is for the whole boat, so it works out cheaper (and more fun) to have other people on the boat to share the expense

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Glenn Lamb

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post Sue. We’ll try and do this when we’re in Mexico City.

    1. Sue Pearse

      It is one of those fun touristy things to do Glenn.

  2. Mary Lou Stephens

    What an amazing experience and you write about it so evocatively I felt as though I was there. Such a shame the canals are dying. And bloody carp!!!!

  3. Estelle Anderson

    These Mexican Canals look so amazing. I loved your video. So much music and dancing. plus the bright colours and interesting activity in the canals. What a shame the canals are dying! So very sad.

    1. Sue Pearse

      Estelle, a day out on the canals is really something to experience. Hopefully the government will act to revive the canals for future generations.

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