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Exploring the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco: A Comprehensive Guide

E3: Exploring the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco

Welcome to Xochimilco, a vibrant and enchanting destination just south of Mexico City, renowned for its historic Floating Gardens, or chinampas. This UNESCO World Heritage Site offers a unique glimpse into ancient Aztec agricultural ingenuity and serves as a vibrant cultural experience that continues to thrive in modern times. Whether you are a history buff, nature enthusiast, or simply looking for a picturesque and lively outing, Xochimilco has something to captivate every visitor.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. From the rich historical background and the fascinating construction of the chinampas to practical tips for enjoying a gondola ride through the scenic canals, we will ensure that you are fully prepared to immerse yourself in this magical destination. Join us as we navigate the lush waterways and explore the vibrant flora and fauna that make Xochimilco a must-visit location in Mexico City. Whether you are planning your first trip or looking to deepen your understanding of this remarkable site, our guide will help you experience the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in all of their splendor.

Historical Background 

The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco date back to the Aztec Empire and the 15th century. The Aztecs developed the chinampas system to address several critical challenges and needs related to agriculture, food production, and environmental management in their capital, Tenochtitlan, and its surrounding territories. The name "chinampa" comes from the Nahuatl language (the Aztecan language), meaning a "square made of canes."

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, (now modern day Mexico City), was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. This location provided strategic advantages, particularly related to the defense of their capital, but limited the amount of land available for development and farming. Due to limited amount of arable land in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs needed to develop a way to maximize their agricultural outputs to support their growing population. 

The Aztecs built these artificial islands to grow crops around Tenochtitlan in the swampy region of the Valley of Mexico. The construction of chinampas involved using mud and organic material from Lake Texcoco, which were rich in nutrients. This made the chinampas highly fertile and productive. Additionally, the interconnected canals facilitated efficient transportation of goods and resources. The chinampas allowed for intensive cultivation, significantly increasing the amount of food that could be produced in a relatively small area.

Unlike traditional farming methods that depend on seasonal cycles, chinampas could be cultivated year-round. The constant supply of water from the surrounding canals created a microclimate that helped protect crops from frost and provided consistent irrigation. By ensuring a stable and abundant food supply, the chinampas system supported the economic stability and political power of the Aztec Empire. Surplus agricultural production could be stored or traded, strengthening the empire’s economic base and its ability to sustain large urban populations and military campaigns.

The development of chinampas reflected the Aztecs' ability to innovate and adapt to their environment. This agricultural ingenuity showcased their advanced understanding of engineering, environmental management, and sustainable practices, enabling them to thrive in a challenging landscape.

Welcome to Xochimilco

Ecological & Cultural Importance

The floating gardens of Xochimilco hold significant ecological and cultural importance, reflecting both their historical heritage and their current role in biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture.

Hub of Biodiversity

The canals and chinampas of Xochimilco are more than just a testament to ancient Aztec ingenuity; they are a vibrant, living ecosystem that supports a remarkable diversity of plant and animal species. One of Xochimilco's most famous inhabitants is the endangered axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), a unique type of salamander that has become a symbol of Xochimilco's ecological significance. The axolotl, known for its remarkable ability to regenerate limbs, is native to the waters of this region and is critically endangered due to habitat loss and pollution.

Beyond the axolotl, the canals and floating gardens create a thriving habitat for a multitude of other species. Aquatic plants flourish in the nutrient-rich waters, providing food and shelter for various fish and invertebrates. Terrestrial plants cultivated on the chinampas not only support agriculture but also contribute to the local flora. The area is a haven for birdlife, attracting both resident and migratory species that find ample food and nesting sites in this lush environment. The interdependence among these species underscores the significance of safeguarding Xochimilco, not just for its cultural legacy but also for upholding regional biodiversity and ecological well-being.

Sustainable Agriculture

The chinampas system in Xochimilco is a remarkable example of sustainable agriculture that has been practiced for centuries.  This ingenious farming method, developed by the Aztecs, has helped to manage the ecological balance of the Lake Texcoco environment through several key mechanisms. Firstly, the construction of chinampas involved layering mud, organic material, and aquatic vegetation, which not only created a stable and fertile platform for cultivation but also significantly reduced soil erosion. The dense root systems of the plants grown on these floating gardens help to anchor the soil and prevent it from being washed away by water currents.

Furthermore, the chinampas system is highly effective in minimizing nutrient loss. The decomposition of organic material used in the construction of chinampas enriches the soil with essential nutrients, ensuring that the land remains fertile over long periods. This method of recycling organic waste into the soil maintains its productivity without the need for synthetic fertilizers, which are harmful to the environment. Additionally, farmers practice what is known as milpa. Milpa farming is a traditional Mesoamerican agricultural practice that involves the intercropping of maize, beans, and squash (among other produce), to create a sustainable and symbiotic farming system that enhances soil fertility and crop productivity.

Want to learn more about the sustainable agriculture of Xochimilco? Condé Nast Traveler has a fantastic article about how the man-made islands of Xochimilco offer a path to sustainable eating in Mexico City.

Cultural Importance of the Floating Gardens

Culturally, the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco hold deep significance as they embody the resilience and creativity of the Aztec people. They are a symbol of how indigenous knowledge and practices can harmonize with the environment to create sustainable living systems. Today, Xochimilco remains a hub of cultural activity, where tradition thrives. The colorful trajineras, or gondola-like boats, that navigate the canals are iconic, offering a festive and immersive way to explore the Xochimilco. This enduring connection to the past, combined with its ongoing cultural vibrancy, makes Xochimilco a cherished part of Mexico's national identity and a valuable resource for understanding pre-Hispanic and contemporary Mexican life.

Xochimilco Up-Close

The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco Today

Xochimilco was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, recognizing its value as a cultural and historical landmark that provides insights into ancient Mesoamerican life. (This UNESCO World Heritage Site designation also includes the Historic Center of Mexico City. More information can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage Convention website.) Today, Xochimilco continues to play a vital role as agricultural land for the residents of Mexico City, while also serving as a vibrant hub for tourism, attracting visitors from near and far to experience the charm and beauty of this historic destination.

The quintessential experience in Xochimilco is taking a ride on a trajinera, the brightly painted, gondola-like boats. As you navigate the canals, you will enjoy lively music from mariachi bands, vendors selling food and souvenirs, and the vibrant atmosphere of this historic waterway.

How to Visit the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco 

There are a number of ways to visit the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco as a day-trip from Mexico City. Xochimilco is located approximately 90 minutes from the Historic Center in southeast Mexico City. I recommend booking a guided tour that provides transportation from the city center to Xochimilco. If you cannot find a suitable tour with transportation included, you have the option of taking an Uber or a licensed taxi to Xochimilco. As always, when in Mexico City, do not hesitate to ask your hotel for assistance in arranging a taxi ride on your behalf.

Guided Tours

The easiest way to visit the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco is on a guided tour that includes transportation from Mexico City. You can choose from a range of guided tours, each offering different experiences at various price points. This is the method we used for our own visit to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco and having the transportation included made the experience that much more enjoyable since it was one less thing we had to arrange on our own. I would not recommend the exact tour that we took to Xochimilco as the included bus transportation lacked working air conditioning. However, there are plenty of other recommended guided tours available that offer a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Many of the top-rated guided tours on GetYourGuide include other popular tourist attractions near Xochimilco, including the Frida Kahlo Museum (Casa Azul). While these experiences last most of the day, they are a great option for those who want to make the most of their time in Mexico City. Some of the highest-rated tours, which include transportation, are linked below. 

Looking for a guided tour that combines both Teotihuacan and the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco? GetYourGuide has one tour provider that will take you to both of these incredible sites over the course of eight hours. It is a private tour, but includes lunch, transportation, tour guide, tickets, and more. Additional information can be found on the GetYourGuide website

If you book an experience or tour through our GetYourGuide affiliate link, we may earn a small commission. 


Ecotourism Experiences

Visitors to the floating gardens of Xochimilco can partake in ecotourism experiences that highlight the region's unique biodiversity and sustainable agricultural practices. These guided tours offer an educational journey through the canals, providing insights into the ecological and cultural significance of the chinampas while promoting conservation efforts.

UNESCO has a list of different ecotourism experiences in Xochimilco and Mexico City, including a highly rated experience that offers you the opportunity to be a beekeeper for a day. (The full list of ecotourism experiences can be found on the UNESCO website.) However, if you are looking for a different kind of experience during your visit to Xochimilco or something a bit more lowkey than beekeeping, we recommend the following kayak tour via GetYourGuide. Transportation is not included, but the experience does include a sunrise or sunset kayak experience, a bilingual local guide, and a visit to the axolotl conservation center.

If you book an experience or tour through our GetYourGuide affiliate link, we may earn a small commission. 

Without a Pre-Arranged Tour

If you do not want to book a pre-arranged tour or experience of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, you can book one on-site. From Mexico City, take an Uber or licensed taxi to the Embarcadero Belem which is the largest boat launch in Xochimilco. You will have to negotiate with boat owners upon arrival and expect to pay about $500-600 pesos ($30-36 USD) per hour for the entire boat (please keep in mind that this cost is not per person, but for the entire boat). Prepare to have sufficient pesos available with you for both the boat rental and any vendors that you may want to purchase drinks, snacks, and souvenirs from during your time in Xochimilco. 


What to Expect: The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco 

While we were naively expecting a leisurely boat tour through the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco on an iconic trajinera boat, we instead ended up on a lively trajinera party boat. Despite the unexpected turn of events, we embraced the lively atmosphere and had fun, even though it was not quite what we had envisioned for our day-trip to Xochimilco. 

Leisure boat tours are available, but many individuals book the trajinera boats for celebrations whether they be weddings, bachelor/bachelorette parties, birthdays, and more. So do not be surprised - like we were - to find that taking tequila shots and getting drunk, while blasting music on a bluetooth-enabled stereo, is a common occurrence in Xochimilco. 

So, prepare yourself for a memorable visit to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco by following our next few insights, designed to help you make the most of your experience and meet your travel expectations.



First and foremost, there are a lot of vendors in Xochimilco. Vendors will approach you along the canals and perhaps even tie their boat up to your's to sell you anything and everything from a margarita and street corn, to a colorful serape featuring Frida Kahlo. While at first the vendors might seem charming, but they can become overwhelming fairly quickly. 

If you want to purchase something, but do not speak Spanish, ask your trajinera guide for assistance. The guides were more than willing to help you make a purchase with a vendor from our experience. However, if you prefer not to make a purchase, simply decline by saying "no gracias," and the vendors will move on to a different trajinera along the canals.


Err on the side of caution with any food or drinks consumed during your time at The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. While any bottled beverages or pre-packaged foods are fine to consume, any mixed drinks containing unfiltered water or ice, as well as any food prepared in unfiltered water may make you sick. Remember that Mexico has different water treatment standards compared to the United States, Canada, and many other countries around the world. Additionally, in some areas of Mexico, aging infrastructure and inadequate water treatment facilities can also lead to contamination of the water supply. While upscale restaurants in Mexico City use filtered and purified water to ensure a safe dining experience for their patrons, the same standards do not apply to all street food vendors, including those found along the canals of Xochimilco. We say this not to scare you, but because it is important to be cautious about consuming any food and drinks prepared with unfiltered water while visiting Mexico. We want all of our fellow Jetsetters to avoid the dreaded "Montezuma's Revenge," a colloquial term for travelers' diarrhea, that can put a damper on your visit to Mexico City.

Street Corn_Xochimilco

Mariachi Bands

Our favorite part of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco was by far the mariachi bands! Mariachi bands and their music can be found throughout the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco on their own trajineras. You can pay them to play a song of your choosing and they will actually tie up to your boat and come on board for an up-close and personal performance. The presence of mariachi bands infused the atmosphere with an irresistible charm, enhancing the overall experience of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.

Sights Along the Canals of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco 

From beautiful greenery, agricultural land, small homes, and places of business, there is a lot to see while visiting the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. As you float through the canals, you can observe traditional chinampa farming practices in action. These floating gardens are still used to grow a variety of crops and flowers, showcasing sustainable agriculture methods developed by the Aztecs.

Keep an eye out for diverse bird species that inhabit the canals and wetlands of Xochimilco. You can spot colorful birds like herons, egrets, kingfishers, and ducks, adding to the natural beauty of the surroundings.

You will also see plenty of other trajineras. Admire the vibrant trajineras adorned with colorful decorations, often featuring intricate patterns, flowers, and symbols that reflect Mexican culture and traditions.

The Island of the Dolls

The Island of the Dolls, or "La Isla de las Muñecas," is one of the most intriguing and eerie attractions in Xochimilco, located among its extensive network of canals. The island is famous for its numerous dolls and doll parts hanging from trees and scattered around the area, creating a hauntingly surreal atmosphere. The story behind this unusual site begins with Don Julián Santana Barrera, who moved to the island in the mid-1900s.

According to local legend, Don Julián discovered the body of a drowned girl in one of the canals and soon after found a doll floating nearby. Believing that the doll belonged to the deceased girl, he hung it on a tree as a sign of respect and to appease her spirit. Over time, Don Julián began collecting and displaying more dolls, believing that they were haunted by the spirits of other lost children. He continued this practice for decades, transforming the island into the bizarre spectacle it is today.

More information about the Island of the Dolls can be found on Atlas Obscura

Island of Dolls_Xochimilco

Pollution at Xochimilco 

Pollution at Xochimilco has become a significant concern, threatening both its ecological health and cultural heritage. The primary sources of pollution include untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and urban waste, which introduce harmful contaminants into the water and soil of the canals and chinampas. This pollution impacts the diverse aquatic life, including the endangered axolotl. Additionally, the accumulation of plastic waste and other debris disrupts the beauty and ecological balance of the area. 

When exploring Xochimilco, please be mindful to take your trash with you and refrain from littering in the canals. It is disheartening and sad to witness the once-beautiful surroundings marred by debris in the waterways.

What to Pack for a Trip to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco 

First and foremost, a trip to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco requires sunscreen. While the trajinera boats are covered and offer some shade, the sun is still strong. You will also want to bring bottled water with you on your visit. While there was no shortage of alcoholic beverages to buy, finding vendors selling bottled water was a bit more challenging during our visit. Thankfully, we had two small bottles with us to help keep us hydrated while we were out in the sun. Some other items to pack include:

  • Camera or Smartphone: To capture the beautiful scenery, trajineras, and vibrant cultural activities.
  • Cash: Many vendors and boat operators prefer cash, and small bills are useful for making purchases and tipping.
  • Hand Sanitizer and Wet Wipes: For hygiene purposes, especially if you plan to eat while on your tour.

What to Wear to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco 

To our surprise, the trajineras take on a bit of water during your boat ride through the canals of Xochimilco. While it is no cause for concern, you do want to ensure that you dress appropriately. I recommend that you steer clear of long dresses and pants that could potentially get wet on the bottom. Instead, wear light, breathable clothes suitable for the weather such as shorts, skirts, or a midi-length sundress. A hat and sunglasses are also recommended to protect you from the sun.

It is also pertinent that you opt for footwear that can handle getting wet, whether they be sneakers or sandals, to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience during your visit to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.


Xochimilco: In Summary 

In summary, a boat ride through the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco offers a multifaceted journey into the heart of Mexico's cultural and natural heritage. From the ancient agricultural marvels of the chinampas to the vibrant colors and melodies of the trajineras and mariachi bands, every moment on the waterways is an exploration of Mexico's rich traditions and stunning biodiversity. Whether you're captivated by the eerie allure of the Island of the Dolls or enchanted by the tranquil beauty of the canals, Xochimilco promises an unforgettable experience that celebrates the past, present, and future of this unique cultural landscape.

Looking for more information on Mexico and Mexico City? Check out our Mexico City Travel Guide for more popular sites, incredible restaurants, and general information about this vibrant capital! Looking for general information on Mexico before embarking on your trip? From money matters, to crime and safety warnings, we have it all in our Mexico Travel Guide

Have you visited the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco? We would love to hear from you!