Sunday, January 19, 2014

Xochimilco: The Venice of Mexico

Mexico City is massive, one of the largest cities in the world. It is almost solid concrete, and so jammed with traffic that the most efficient way to get around is on the underground Metro and the Metro-buses that run down special lanes. The buses are very much like free-wheeled trains. The stations for embarking are platforms and the doors to the bus stay open only for a short time. But if you miss getting through the door, another bus will come along shortly.

Malena, her three-year-old son Mateo, and I left her mother's house around 11:00. We metro-bussed to a restaurant with a kid's play area. By noon we were on our way again to Xochimilco (Zoh-chee-meel-koh). Using the fastest methods available, we arrived in that far-south part of the city two hours later.

Malena and Mateo
On the outskirts of the densest parts of the city, the streets are lined with trees, homes are larger with lovely gardens, birds flit and screech all around, and street dogs live a good relaxed lifestyle feasting on the table scraps the maids dump out on the sidewalks.

Xochimilco is famous for it's chinampas, the "floating gardens" dating back to Aztec times. In those days the Aztecs built large square plots of land a couple of feet above the surface of the lake, which itself was not very deep. Between the plots they left eight or ten feet of open water for boat travel. If the rains were not sufficient, they could always dip into the lake and water their crops. And because of that, they took great care not to contaminate the water with human waste.

The climate was mild enough, even in the winter, to have three rotations of crops every year and this practice is still continued in Xochimilco. The earliest accounts from the conquering Spaniards told of markets overflowing with fresh vegetables and fruits, the likes of which they had never seen, and of a variety they found impossible to imagine.

These days the original lake is surrounded by city and eight embarcaderos where tourists can hire a boat with a poler to take them into the waters between the chinampas. Unlike Venice, where beautiful stone buildings seem to rise directly out of the water, the houses on the chinampas are usually set back in the middle of the lot, with gardens all around, though some buildings are right on the water's edge. The gardens are planted with flowers of every kind and, in the winter, with chard, spinach, peas, hardy lettuces, carrots and potatoes. There are a couple of wide canals where the bulk of the tourist boats pass, but between the islands are much smaller waterways used as streets by the residents.

Floating around with us were small flat bottomed boats with vendors selling colorful embroidered clothing and table cloths, toys, musical instruments, cold drinks, and food kept hot with a coal fired stove sitting on the bottom of the wooden boat. We weren't yet hungry but we could have sampled steaming ears of corn with butter or mayonaise slathered over them, tacos, or tamales. Bands of up to ten musicians also floated around and entertained the boats full of people, for the price of about $5US per song. We just floated past and enjoyed the music other people had paid for!

A floating vendor with toys and dolls.

View out the front of our boat. We were docked at a greenhouse
where we toured a typical chinampa garden.
Empty boats, it was the low season. 

Large group parked at a restaurant along the canal

Typical view up a residential watercourse

Many couples enjoy Xochimilco for a romantic getaway
or not.....

PS: for us word nerds, the flat bottomed boats are called trajineras.