The ancient Xochimilco canals, about an hour south of the Centro Historico of Mexico City, are a UNESCO world heritage site dating back to the Aztecs. Xochimilco is a district of Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico. The name “Xochimilco” means “where the flowers grow” which is fitting because Xochimilco is famous for its floating gardens.
The region was once a pre-Columbian town, settled by the Xochimilca people around the 9th century. At the time, the area was all lake and wetlands. The Xochimilca wanted to make use of the area for farming, but traditional farming methods would not work because of all the water. So, they engineered a creative solution! They constructed rafts out of reeds to float on the water, covered them with mud pulled from the bottom of the lake, and used that fertile mud to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Over time, the rafts took root and became islands, which also formed the canals we see there today.
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The Xochimilca Canals Today
Nowadays the canals and the traditional boats used to traverse them (called “trajineras”) are mostly used for tourism. The canals are a popular place to visit for both foreigners and locals. Some will grab a boat tour for a lesson in history, and others will take a trip to enjoy beers and music. But Xochimilco has plenty to offer beyond just the canals, if you have more time to spare, it is worth exploring the town to enjoy markets, museums, and food! Whatever your preference, a visit to the canals of Xochimilco is a must-do on your trip to Mexico City.
On my week long trip to Mexico City, I took two day trips that ended up being the highlights of my time in Mexico. A visit to the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan, of course, and my day trip to Xochimilco. Here’s your guide to enjoying one day in Xochimilco, Mexico City.
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Should I do a day trip to the Xochimilco canals with a tour or solo?
Xochimilco can be easily visited on a day trip from the center of Mexico City. There are many tour operators that arrange various tour options that include Xochimilco. For example, it is possible to take a full day tour that combines a couple sites like the Frida Kahlo house and the canals of Xochimilco (as well as round trip transportation). Tours range from 30 USD to over 100 USD.
It is also possible to visit Xochimilco on your own, which is what I did. Transportation in Mexico City is simple and efficient to use, and Xochimilco was no problem to explore on foot. If you are up to making the trip independently, it can absolutely be done, and you’ll save some of your travel budget doing it this way.
What to do on a Xochimilca canals day trip
A day trip to the Xochimilco canals will for sure be centered around a ride on the trajineras, and it should be – the boat trip is not only a learning opportunity, but tons of fun. There are beautiful views, and along the way vendors selling everything you could possibly want, from hats and jewelry to empanadas and fresh beer.
My favorite part of riding a trajinera was the mariachi bands. All throughout the canals, mariachi bands hop from boat to boat, so you can hear their vibrant music throughout the canal system. You can hire the band to come aboard your boat for a private concert, or just do as I did and listen from afar.
Tips to keep in mind for your trajinera ride:
- Brings lots of cash in case you would like to buy food, drinks, or hire a band while on the boat. Prices on the water are higher than the typical on-land prices for food and drinks.
- There are around 11 embarcation spots from which you can hire a trajinera in Xochimilco. The most common one is called Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas, this is the one that is recommended for tourists.
- The cost for a boat ride is per hour, per boat. To save money, you can team up with other groups to hire a boat together. As of fall 2019, the price was 500 pesos per boat, per hour. I would verify this price by checking signage before hiring a boat.
- A one hour trip is rather short. If you’d like to really experience the canals, I recommend taking a 2 or 3 hour trip. Just beware, there are no bathrooms available on the boats!
Xochimilco is more than just canals
When I made the trip to the Xochimilco canals, all I knew about were the canals and trajineras. As it turns out, there is actually lots worth seeing there. Xochimilco has a small town feel, and that’s because it actually used to be a small town.
In recent decades Mexico City has rapidly expanded, and as a result, it’s swallowed up boroughs that were once not part of the city. So although Xochimilco has become technically a part of Mexico City, it does maintain its original small town feel. And it’s quite a nice break from the city!
Xochimilco is small enough that you can walk all through the town, and it is a lovely town to discover on foot. The town is quiet compared to the city, and has many small markets that you can explore for goods and food – be sure to have some tacos or tortas (sandwiches)!
It’s worth stopping by the 16th-century San Bernardino de Siena church, which includes a former monastery complex. The last Indian governor of Xochimilco, Apoxquiyohuatzin, is buried here, and in the church you’ll see a main altar, a skull from a pre-Hispanic skull rack, and other beautiful architectural aspects.
And, Xochimilco is home to an art museum! The Museo Dolores Olmeda is one of Mexico City’s great art museums. There you’ll see some lesser known works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as well as a large collection of pre-Hispanic pieces.
My personal favourite was the Mercado de Xochimilco. While there are plenty of markets in the centre (touristy) area of Mexico City, the Xochimilco Market has a more authentic feeling to it. You’ll see locals shopping for their groceries and examining wares, and you’ll also find unique items that are great to take home with you.
How to get to the Xochimilco canals from Mexico City
To reach Xochimilco by public transport, take the metro from the Centro Historico station to Tasqueña Station and then switch to the TL-1 train to Xochimilco – this costs 8 pesos. If you have any trouble along the way, ask an attendant in the metro for help. The trip takes about 90 minutes total.
From Xochimilco station you can walk to “Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas” which is where you’ll catch the trajineras. The walk to the embarcadero is about 20 minutes. Most of the sites in Xochimilco are walkable, but if you prefer, you can get around by bus or Uber.
For the trip home, I opted to use Uber! It’s safe and reliable, and Uber trips don’t break the bank in Mexico City. So after a long day of exploring Xochimilco, you can relax in the back of an Uber for the trip back to your hotel or hostel.
About the Author
Erin Elizabeth Hynes is a travel enthusiast, lover of all things media, and storyteller. She works in marketing by day, but by night, throws herself with reckless abandon at a variety of projects: she writes and hosts a travel podcast (called Alpaca My Bags!), writes for her travel blog (Pina Travels), and is editor-in-chief of a print magazine, Pressed.