XochimilcoFlickr/KatieBordner (CC by 2.0)

Xochimilco: an ancient Aztec canal system

The canals on Mexico City’s southern edge gurgle with life. Soft waves from drifting flat-bottom boats lap the shore. A maze of 2,215 hectares of canals and islands are all that is left of the five-lake system that once covered the Valley of Mexico. This eco-oasis drew animals and humans to this verdant high plateau over 10,000 years ago, long before other parts of Mexico were settled. The original people of the valley took advantage of the marshy land and its cycle of heavy rains to create one of the most important and ancient agricultural systems in the world chinampa farming.

A chinampa is a small island created from layers of organic material and lake silt piled atop one of each other until solid land begins to rise above the water line. The resulting “islands” had mineral-rich soil and the benefit of easy irrigation – as simple as tossing buckets of water from a canoe. 

When the Aztec people began their reign of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in the 1300s, they extended the chinampa system to include thousands more islands and began to build their expanding city atop them. This was the height of the canals’ productivity, with kilometres of watery fields providing produce for the city and employing thousands of farmers.

XochimilcoFlickr/Doug Knuth (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During the colonial period, the Spanish were nervous in their watery viceroyalty (with what some would say was good reason as there were several major floods that left the city under several feet of water for years) laid plans to drain the valley of its lakes. Porfirio Diaz also chipped away at the canal system with his drainage projects in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. It wasn’t until the late 20th-century when the Mexican capital expanded at a breakneck speed, that much of the former chinampa land and canals gave way to urban dwellings. The city’s last major canals, that like Italy’s Venice which would ferry people and produce straight into the heart of the city, were covered and converted into roadways in the 1960s.

Modern Xochimilco

XochimilcoFlickr/Eddie Milfort (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today’s canals are the last living remnant of what was once a glorious rural ecosystem. Drifting along them near the Xochimilco neighborhood travellers are delighted by floating marimba bands and ice cold cerveza sold from women in nearby canoes. Go a bit deeper into this watery labyrinth and chinampa farmers can still be found growing corn, nopal cactus, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and other produce for the local market. While the uneducated might tell you that the canals are simply a throwback to a simpler time, they are in fact, an important ecosystem and a vital lung for the Mexico City. They are critical to understanding the city's past and protecting its future. 

How to explore Xochimilco

XochimilcoFilckr/Marcos Guevera (CC by 2.0)

To access the canals there are several docks scattered throughout the south of city. The docks in the middle of Xochimilco, like Embarcadero Belen, will take you to the more touristy areas and docks like Embarcadero Cuemanco, to more agricultural areas. Xochimilco docks can be reached via public transportation and a short walk, Cuemanco requires a cab or Uber. Several tours are also available