Xochimilco Chinampas: The Ancient Floating Gardens of Mexico City

About an hour outside of Mexico City lies Xochimilco, a  UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s history dates back thousands of years to pre-hispanic times. Thousands of tourists flock to this area each week to take a boat ride on one of the hundreds of colorful wooden boats (trajineras) through the canals surrounding the ancient floating gardens called Chinampas.

During our visit to Mexico City, we decided to visit Xochimilco and the chinampas in a slightly different way than most tourist, by going on an eco-tour where we visited one of the few active organic gardens that occupy the chinampas today and learned about this history and importance of the islands. It was an incredible experience, that everyone should do if they plan to visit Mexico City.

the history of the chinampas

Ancient Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, was created by the Aztecs by combining layers of wood, branches, and mud to make an island in the middle of the lake (Lago de Texcoco). To accompany the thriving city, the Aztecs and Toltecs created a series of canals with floating gardens called Chinampas to help grow food.

The word chinampa is Nahuatl word, which is the pre-hispanic Aztec language, and means flower garden. The chinampas are built from a layering technique using willow trees as the anchor, then layering mud, branches, reeds, and cane until the island sits high above the water.

The soil is rich in nutrients and is the perfect medium for growing a thriving garden because of the ash from the volcanic eruptions when this area was created. 10% of all of the rain fall that is experienced in Mexico City is absorbed in Xochimilco making a natural, filtered, watering system for the food growing above.

The Aztecs originally harvested what we call the Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash. Strategically planting certain vegetables and flowers near each other to keep pests down.

disappearing chinampas

Xochimilco is one of the only places you can still see the existence of Chinampas and the ancient waterways. But out of the thousands of chinampas scattered throughout Xochimilco, the majority are abandoned. Over the past few centuries more and more families are retreating from the traditional farming practice and choosing to rent this space to soccer clubs, group events, or simply go unused. Currently about 3% of the Chinampas are being used as a farm.

If all of the Chinampas were used for agriculture, it could potentially feed all of Mexico City inhabitants in a local, sustainable way. But the restoration of this ancient agricultural practice is crucial in not just feeding Mexico City, it’s keeping it afloat. The canals that surround the chinampas are being depleted at a rapid rate. The practice of building and cultivating gardens on top of the chinampas actually restores water into the canals by pulling mud from the bottom of the lake to the top of the chinampa.

These chinampas continue to be the foundation for all of Mexico City and play a key role in Mexico City’s eco-system. If in 30 years the Chinampas are not restored, the canals will dry out and Mexico City would crumble.

Luckily, hope is not lost. With the help from people like Ricardo Rodríguez, founder of De La Chinampas a not for profit who’s mission is to restore the practice of growing food on the Chinampas. His company sells produce grown on the Chinampas through a CSA, in addition to connecting direct consumers like restaurants to the farmers for the renting of the land for food production. His program started with just 2 farmers, and now has over 45 farmers and chinampas being used for agriculture practices.

What to expect on the tour

We wanted to see a different side of Xochimilco so we opted for an eco-tour with De La Chinampa were we spent a relaxing afternoon floating through the canals and touring one of Ricardo’s chinampas where he has over 90 plots growing a wide variety of vegetables and flowers. During the boat ride, we enjoyed a delicious traditional Mexican lunch with produce harvested from Ricardo’s garden. He shared the history of the Chinampas, the role it plays in the biodiversity of Mexico City and the importance of his work and mission.

The tour lasts about 3 hours, and includes lunch for $4,200 pesos (about $180). The rate is not per person, but per boat excursion. It’s a good idea to go with a group or call ahead to see if others have booked a tour during the period of time you will be in Mexico City. This will help keep cost down.

We took a uber from the center of Mexico City to Embarcadero Cuemanco, where we docked the boat which cost us around $15 US dollars one way. If you’re taking a tour make sure to tip your tour guide and boat driver. I can’t imagine how hard it is to steer and navigate those chinampas!
Considering that Mexico City is on of the world’s top ten most populated cities, it’s more important than ever to develop a food system that uses restorative, sustainable, organic practices. Not only would it produce food at a higher quality for the residents, but at a lower cost while rehabiliting the Chinampas and canals.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chinampas, or going on your own eco tour with De La Chinampas, please visit their website. It truly was an incredible experience and we are so thankful for the work Ricardo is doing, and getting to learn about this ancient practice being brought back to life.

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Liz & Dennis

Liz & Dennis

ESRV Team

We’re two travel-loving, real estate investing, foodies exploring North America as full-time RV’ers. This blog is where we share our lessons learned, tips and tricks, and favorite places to eat, see, and RV across North America! We hope it helps you find your wanderlust, plan and prepare for RV life, and get out on the road!

 

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