A View of Mexico City Through the Xochimilco Canals

Mariachi bands playing music along the canal
Mariachi bands playing music along the canal | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Photo of Daniela Castillo Gómez
13 September 2021

In the middle of Mexico City’s urban landscape, a long canal offers a watery glimpse into the past.

Book TRIPS by Culture Trip’s five-day Mexico City tour and sail the Xochimilco waterways in a one-of-a-kind painted boat and sing with mariachis as they float by.

Xochimilco, dubbed “the Venice of Mexico,” is a Unesco World Heritage Site that preserves a lot of pre-Hispanic flair. With its colorful trajineras (tourist boats) and its traditional floating gardens called chinampas, a tour around the Xochimilco canals is one of the attractions you can’t miss in any trip to the Mexican capital.

Meet Salvador, an expert Xochimilco rower

Xochimilco wouldn’t be what it is without the ability of its rowers. Navigating these watercraft requires a special talent. Luckily, Salvador has many years of experience steering his trajinera at Las Flores Nativitas dock.

Salvador gets his boat ready to take tourists on the Xochimilco canals | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Salvador always wanted to be a rower and started when he was 15 | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

Working in the Xochimilco canals is a tradition for Salvador and his family. His older brother started rowing at the lake when he was still a kid, and he invited the rest of the siblings to join him. Salvador began his career when he was just 15 years old, and, almost two decades later, he is still in love with the job.

The ‘trajineras’ provide a lively business that helps support the local community | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

“I grew up at the docks. I used to watch the rowers and think ‘I want to be like them.’ My family wasn’t completely on board with the idea, but after my dad was fired from his job, he decided to buy a trajinera and rowing became the family business.”

Tours are popular with local and international visitors, and steering a packed boat is a tricky feat | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

However, working on the trajineras is more than just an occupation. Salvador confides that rowing on the Xochimilco canals was also a way for him and his brothers to pay for their education. “My brother completed his bachelor’s degree working at the lagoon. It was an inspiration for all of us. We don’t want to just row, we actually want to study and have a life outside the docks.”

A young child cools down by reaching into the Xochimilco canals | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

Life at the Xochimilco canals

Working on a trajinera is like working during a constant party. Visitors can rent a boat by the hour and once there, enjoy live Mariachi music and freshly made food and drinks. Rowers offer typical Mexican dishes and sell souvenirs for tourists. In addition, customers can pick between tours along the main canal, the ecological reserve or, the most popular one, La Isla de las Muñecas (The Island of the Dolls).

Tourists stop to photograph Isla de las Muñecas | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
A woman sells flower crowns to tourists | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Fresh food being made for tourists during their day on the canal | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Mariachi bands play music for visitors along the canal | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

Nevertheless, what Salvador loves the most is not the lake itself, but the people. “Every day is the same: the same landscape, the same canals, the same tours.… What makes it different is the people. The other rowers and the tourists are what make this job worth it.”

‘Trajinera’ drivers are used to seeing each other and communicating across the canals | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Salvador shows the skill it takes to steer a ‘trajinera’ | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

Salvador likes to work with families; he says they are the best customers. “They are all very kind and are genuinely interested in the history of Xochimilco. I try to learn local legends and historical facts for them. Since they bring kids with them, they actually listen to me and are very respectful.”

Visitors enjoy a romantic ride down the Xochimilco | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
Trajineras provide a relaxing ride down the water and a perfect way to stretch out in the sun | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

Although it’s obvious that tours of the Xochimilco canals offer great entertainment along with one or two tequila shots, Salvador thinks that the lake has so much more to offer. “There is a lot of culture in this place. People often don’t see that. We try to communicate that as best as we can. We plan bohemian nights every now and then, and we even present plays. I just like working with the community and show tourists everything Xochimilco is about.”

Salvador navigating the Xochimilco | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip
A mariachi band takes a break between sets | © Carlos Jose / Culture Trip

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