Xochimilco, 28 km to the south, is one of the 16 boroughs within Mexican Federal District. It is the only remaining reminder of the lacustrine landscape of the Aztec capital, where the conquistadores destroyed the monuments and drained the canals. Today, the borough consists of the 18 barrios (neighborhoods) of this city along with 14 pueblos (villages) that surround it, covering an area of 125 km2.
Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. These canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas (floating gardens) attract tourists and other city residents to ride on colorful gondola like boats called “trajineras” around the canals. The half-natural, half-artificial landscape (ecological reserve) has made Xochimilco a World Heritage Site.
Los Canales Xochimilco is characterized by the existence of a system of canals. These remaining canals and their ecosystem were declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, with the purpose of saving them. An important part of this ecosystem is a juniper tree called an “ahuejote” that is native to the shallow waters of the lake/canals. These stem erosion, act as wind breakers and favor the reproduction of a variety of aquatic species.
Las Chinampas Chinampa is a method of ancient Mesoamerican agriculture which used small, rectangle-shaped areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico.
Chinampas were invented by the pre-Hispanic peoples of the region around 1,000 year ago as a way to increase agricultural production. On the shallow waters of the lakes, rafts were constructed of juniper branches. Onto these rafts floating on the water, lake-bed mud and soil were heaped and crops planted. These rafts, tied to juniper trees, would eventually sink and a new one be built to replace it. Over time, these sunken rafts would form square or rectangular islands, held in place in part by the juniper trees. As these chinampa islands propagated, areas of the lake were reduced to canals. Today, only about 5,000 chinampas, all affixed to the lake bottom, still exist in their original form, surrounded by canals and used for agriculture. The rest have become solid ground and urbanized. These remaining chinampas are historical monuments which give the nomination by UNESCO Cultural patrimony of the humanity.
Isla de las Munecas/The Island of the Dolls—The best-known chinampa, a very creepy place with creepy dolls
Don Julián Santana Barrera, a native of the La Asunción neighborhood, was the caretaker of the island. The story goes that Julian found a little girl drowned in mysterious circumstances while he was not able to save her life. Shortly thereafter, Julian saw a floating doll near the canals. Most probably, the doll belonged to the girl. He picked up the doll and hung it to a tree, as a way of showing respect and supports the spirit of the girl. Julian was apparently driven by some unseen force and started hanging more dolls in an attempt to please her spirit. After 50 years of collecting dolls and hanging them on the island, Julian was found dead, drowned in the same spot where the girl did. Many people on the island believe that Julian has joined the other spirits of the island. The locals are very faithful that the Isla de las Munecas is a charmed place. They believe that the dolls move their heads and arms and even opened their eyes at night. After Julian’s death in 2001, it has become a tourist attraction, where visitors bring more dolls.
Trajineras Today, as in the past, a large number of small, non-motorized boats and barges float on the waters of the canals. Before, these boats were mostly used for the transport of goods, but now, they are almost exclusively used for tourism.
There are various types and sizes of boats that can be found on the waters, but the most common are flat-bottomed boats called trajineras which look similar to gondolas, but are modeled after pre-Hispanic vessels called acallis. There are over two hundred trajineras located in the 9 embarcaderos (docks) that have access to the canals: Cuemanco, Caltongo, Fernando Celada, Salitre, Belém, San Cristóbal, Zacapa, Las Flores, Nuevo Nativitas and Belem de las Flores. These docks were originally used for shipping crops from the local fields. Today, they are mostly used for tourists.
Originally, trajineras were decorated with floral arches and branches of ahuejote juniper trees. This was eventually changed to an arch affixed to a roof, added on for protection from the sun. The arches often have female names on them such as “Saraitzel” or “Trotatours” (our boat’s name), which may refer to someone special or simply be the name of the boat. They can be still decorated with flowers but more often they are painted with floral and other designs. Under the trajineras used for tourists, there is a long table with chairs to allow for eating and drinking.
Smaller canoes (chalupa or chalupita), constructed in strips of wood or brought planks for mountain, measuring 4 m by 50 cm, with vendors sell everything from corn-on-the-cob to blankets to dolls.