Xochimilco – Mexico City’s Venice

Xochimilco – Mexico City’s Venice


When conjuring up thoughts of romantic boat rides with a gondolier, one can’t help but think of Venice.  But Mexico City?  No way!  I had no idea before I came here that Mexico City was founded on a network of lakes and rivers.  Nowadays in most of the city you would never guess, as the metropolis has swallowed up almost all traces of its river based past.  But South of Mexico City, Xochimilco offers a glimpse of Mexico City’s history, through a network of rivers and floating islands.  Some call it the Venice of Mexico, and it’s not hard to see why.

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Colourful Trajinera boats at Xochimilco
Colourful Trajinera boats at Xochimilco

When & How to Visit Xochimilco

Xochimilco is better with a group of people.  The boats for hire can seat up to 15-20 people, so to hire a boat for one person seems like a waste!  I visited for the first time with a friend of mine, and enjoyed a tranquil morning boat ride.  The second time I went was on New Year’s Day afternoon, and the river was filled with hundreds of boats all vying for space.  I preferred the early morning myself!

There are 186 km of rivers and channels in Xochimilco, and 9 different places to board a boat trip.  Around 3000 boats, known as trajineras, ply the waters here, so it does get pretty busy in peak times!

Boats fight for space on the river during busy times at Xochimilco
Boats fight for space on the river during busy times at Xochimilco

We boarded at Embarcadero Belem, with Trajineras Xochiquetzalli,  and negotiated the hire of the boat for a 2 hour ‘cruise’.  They offer set packages to visit the famous garden centres on the islands, and to the dubious mini-zoos housing various snakes & amphibians from the rivers, and elsewhere, or you can just cruise around.  Keep an eye on the time, as we came back earlier than the agreed time slot, but none of us realised!  Two hours is plenty of time to get a good feel for the area, after that all everything starts to look the same.  Be sure to just bring cash, this isn’t a credit card kind of place.

Floating food stalls sell delicious treats to the passing boats at Xochimilco
Floating food stalls sell delicious treats to the passing boats

The Boat Ride in Xochimilco

Our ‘gondolier’ boat driver was Jonathan, and he deftly hauled the heavy wooden pole around to steer us gently through the water.  I had a go myself, and it was much harder than it looked!  The pole itself was so heavy I couldn’t even lift it out of the water, so after nearly crashing into the bank, Jonathan took back control.  Some of the drivers had been doing it all their lives, others were just beginning to learn.  Jonathan said he’d been doing it for a couple of years now.

Boat driver at Xochilmilco
It’s harder than it looks steering the boats! Our ‘driver’ did a sterling job!

We stopped a passing boat-load of mariachis for a song, they charge 100-120 pesos to serenade the boat, and some even climb aboard so you get an up-close experience!  I loved it, as cheesy as it was, this seemed very touristy but actually most of the boats we saw were filled with locals; drinking and dancing away to the music.

Smaller boats pass by, sliding alongside the trajineras and selling snacks, jewellery, flowered headbands and textiles.  Then, amid the madness, the residents of the floating islands came and went, and worked on their own boats, seemingly oblivious to the madness around them – or some hitting the water before rush hour!

Early morning is the best time to enjoy the peaceful waters of Xochimilco
Early morning is the best time to enjoy the peaceful waters

Optional Stops in Xochimilco

Along the banks of the islands you will find the best garden centres in the city.  Rich, fertile soil from the river bed nurtures a variety of plants, when we were there around Christmas time, rows and rows of poinsettia, or Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower) as it’s known in Mexico.  We also stopped off at a mini-zoo which I didn’t really enjoy – a selection of snakes and amphibians, and even a baby crocodile were in tiny glass enclosures, and paraded out to be man-handled. If you don’t fancy that then you can skip it and stay on the water.

Rows of beautiful flowers from the many greenhouses on the banks of the rivers in Xochimilco
Rows of beautiful flowers from the many greenhouses on the banks of the rivers

On most routes you will pass the rather creepy Isla de Muñecas (Doll Island), or an homage to it.  Legend has it, a young call drowned in the river, and used to come back and haunt the residents.  One man decided to bring her a doll to appease the belligerent spirit, and continued to collect these decidedly creepy gifts.  Later, other people added to the collection, and now hundreds of the dolls stare at you from the banks.

Creepy dolls stare back at you from the banks at Xochilmilco
Creepy dolls stare back at you from the banks

The morning boat ride was one of my favourite things I did in Mexico City, and totally unexpected.  It was a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, and although it was busy in the afternoon, it still felt a world away.

A rare moment with no other boats on the water at Xochimilco!
A rare moment with no other boats on the water!

Top Tips for Xochimilco

This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and a good command of Spanish helps, as do firm negotiation skills, to avoid being overcharged.  Be sure to clarify what is included, and how much the additional drinks/snacks are.

Go early for a relaxing, peaceful visit, or at the weekend in a group for a crazy, busy, party atmosphere!

Take your own drinks, snacks and music, or buy them on the boat.  You can even arrange barbecues on the boats, just email the collective for information & rates at trajinerasxochiquetzalli@gmail.com.

Be sure to go to the bathroom before boarding, there are no toilets on board!

Take plenty of cash with you, as you can’t pay by card here.

Bear in mind that anything sold on the river will be much more expensive than it costs on the streets – but it’s the experience you pay for!

You could combine this with a visit to Coyoacan, also south of the city centre.

Some of the boats are a little worse for wear!
Some of the boats are a little worse for wear!

How to Get to Xochimilco

Unfortunately, there is no quick or easy way to get here independently.  Public transport will take around 2 hours from the city centre to the boats, and an Uber would get you there in 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.

Some mariachis will even board your boat to really get in the swing of things at Xochilmilco!
Some mariachis will even board your boat to really get in the swing of things!

Getting to Xochimilco on Public Transport

Take the blue line metro to the last stop Tasqueña, then change to the tren ligero (light train) and take that to the last stop Xochimilco.  The metro costs $5 for a ticket, and to ride the train you have to buy a $20 peso rechargeable card, which includes 1 journey on the train.  You then top up your card to pay for additional journeys, which cost $3 pesos.  The card can be used for multiple people, so 1 card for $20 pesos plus 1 x $3 peso per journey would be $23 pesos for 2 people one way.  An Uber might cost anywhere from $100 to $250 pesos depending on the time of day and demand.

If all this seems like too much trouble, you can book a tour to Xochimilco

Rows of Trajinera boats await customers in Xochimilco
Rows of Trajinera boats await customers in Xochimilco


I enjoyed my two trips to Xochimilco, personally I preferred the quiet morning floating down the river as it was so peaceful.  Have you been, or would you like to go?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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Thank you to Mexico City Live for arranging my first trip to Xochimilco.  That trip was complimentary, but views, as always, are my own.


16 thoughts on “Xochimilco – Mexico City’s Venice

  1. The photographs are vibrant and amazing. Xochimilco is absolutely stunning. Doll island was scary though, I would avoid it, but BBQ? That I would never leave! Amazing place and amazing article.

  2. I really love the analogy to Mexico City as a European canal city. Looks quite different but like an amazing experience on the water all the same!

  3. This looks like so much fun (even the creepy doll part is intriguing). Honestly, I had never heard of Xochimilco, and had no idea that a place like this existed in Mexico City. Now I definitely want to go down with friends and rent a boat. From the singers to the garden stops and views along the way, I bet it is something I would love. Thanks for the cash tip, too!

  4. What a fun experience. I don’t like crowds that much so I’d definitely like the morning ride better too. For 100-150 pesos, I’d definitely want to be serenaded! Touristy but who cares?! Some touristy things are awesome especially when music is involved.

  5. Mexico City is high on my list of next destinations, since it’s the largest city in North America and I’ve never been!

    I grew up hearing about Venice, but the more I see of the world, the more floating cities I discover. It seems so many places were built on networks of islands and canals. Venice just has better PR!

  6. Seems like a unique destination and experience. I enjoy reading about places near and in Mexico city as most Mexican posts seem to centre on Cancun area. I think it would be a great activity our kids would love this

  7. I’m so jealous! I was in Mexico City a year ago and wanted to visit Xochimilco, but it wasn’t possible. I am a solo traveler, so it sounds like it would be better to be with a group. And I like mariachi music, so I think I’d like the musicians. That Doll Island sure is creepy, though…

  8. BBQ on a boat? Now that sounds amazing. I’m not so good with negotiating, so I’ll definitely have to bring a friend that is. And great tip about going early. I definitely prefer a more peaceful environment 🙂

  9. Woah, that doll island looks proper creepy! The boat tour sounds like a fun activity, even though that’s not something I’d expect to find in Mexico City. The pictures are so inviting (except for those dolls haha) I really would love to do it now!

  10. How charming. I would love to ride one of those colorful boats. I think two hours is a good amount of time for you to see and experience the beauty. I had no idea Mexico had anything like this! Like you, I would have skipped the mini zoo as well! We will have to check this out when we make it down there!

  11. Xochimilco looks so amazing, I never even heard about it before. Gosh! I need to explore “more”, if thats even possible? From pictures it looks so much like the houseboats/ boats we have in the backwaters of India. So cool.

  12. This is so cool called Venice. The boats are very similar with ones that I saw on Phewa lake in Pokhara, Nepal. It seem that this type of leisure activity has only one image. It is very interesting how you find similar things in different parts of the world – Nepal vs. Pokhara.

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