All of Mexico City used to be located on a lake, and the Aztecs built elaborate canals to transport stuff. They conquered the nearby Xochimilcas, a group of people who were renowned for their unique way of growing stuff — on chinampas, or raised lake beds. To this day, flowers are grown in Xochimilco, and it’s become a great place to spend a day on a colorful boat, too. Or as the government of Mexico City puts it, it’s a living history of colors, aromas and sounds.
With its colorful boats plying a series of canals, wide array of Mexican cuisine to sample, free-flowing tequila and smorgasbord of traditional music, it’s a feast for the eyes and a lot of fun (so long as fellow passengers don’t overindulge and become obnoxious). But it isn’t Xochimilco (note slightly different spelling), any more than New York-New York in Las Vegas is the Big Apple.
The real Xochimilco — variously translated from the Aztec’s Nahuatl language as “garden of flowers” or “place where flowers grow” — is an outlying borough of Mexico City today; one of the capital’s most cherished Sunday traditions is spending an afternoon floating through the canals on brightly painted, covered wooden pole boats called trajineras, having a long lunch and enjoying mariachis playing on passing barges. But what I find most compelling is something no theme park can replicate: This is the last remnant of the vast system of causeways, canals, manmade islands and floating gardens created out of the vast lake system that once covered today’s Valley of Mexico before it was blotted out by Mexico City’s sprawl. It’s a glimpse into not just pre-Hispanic, but pre-Aztec Mexico.
The Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325 on an island in the now dried-up Lake Texcoco, the largest of five interconnected lakes, became the largest city in pre-Columbian America. Why, you might ask, did the Mexica (pregenitors of the Aztec) choose to base their empire in the middle of a lake, where food and fresh water were scarce? Like many ancient cultures, they took their legends seriously, and one legend sent them on a centuries-long quest in search of an eagle perched on a cactus, a sign that they had reached the place where they were meant to establish their new capital and ceremonial center. The middle of Lake Texcoco just happened to be where they finally encountered said eagle.
The Aztec’s adaptations were feats of engineering and ingenuity: long causeways to the mainland, with bridges that allowed canoes to pass and could be pulled away to defeat would-be invaders; levees that kept fresh spring water separate from brackish lake waters; miles-long terra cotta aqueducts; a complex system of canals throughout the city; and chinampas to provide land for agriculture. Sometimes called floating gardens, chinampas don’t actually float. They were created by sinking cane frames into the shallow lake bed and filling them with mud, sediment, and decaying vegetation. These fertile little islets, separated by canals for farmers to navigate in canoes, produced prodigious yields of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies and flowers in the swamps.
End of an era
Some of the earliest chinampas were built on the south shore of Lake Xochimilco, the southern arm of Lake Texcoco. Though most were abandoned after the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the dams and drained the canals in order to build roads, many of Xochimilco’s fields were spared because they were such an important food source. With Mexico City’s expansion and new farming techniques, few of the tens of thousands of chinampas remain, though some in the residual Lake Xochimilco are still used to grow vegetables and flowers — Xochimilco’s primary source of income— as well as for recreation.
UNESCO, calling Xochimilco “the only reminder of traditional ground occupation in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin before the Spanish conquest,” declared it a World Heritage Site in 1987. The Parque Ecologico de Xochimilco, a great green area with trails, endemic wildlife, wetlands, bird reserves, and aquatic and land activities, was established in 1993. Yet development pressures, natural forces (earthquakes being the most violent) and pollution have accelerated the deterioration of the canals and chinampas that began with the Spanish conquest; some officials and scientists predict the canals and gardens will be gone within a generation.