Are you looking to visit Xochimilco? This is one darn enthralling corner of Mexico City. Visitors come to see the remnants of elaborate Aztec canal systems that once connected the peoples of the Valley of Mexico.
They come to see strange agricultural islands that sprout flowers and local crops just as they have done for centuries. Or they come to see haunting art installations like the curious Isla de las Munecas.
This guide will run through all of the ins and outs of a trip to Xochimilco in Mexico City. As I used to live in Mexico City I’ve been to Xochimilco a million times, as it’s where the young locals throw celebratory parties.
My guide will reveal the enthralling history of this corner of CDMX and list some of the must-see attractions it has up its sleeve. There’ll also be some in-the-know tips on how to travel to Xochimilco by public transport and where to eat when you get there. Enjoy…
Where is Xochimilco?
Xochimilco is one of the 16 municipal districts of Mexico City. It’s the southernmost of the lot, too, sitting nearly 10 miles directly south of the famous Plaza de la Constitucion in the heart of the capital.
The fertile slopes of the Volcan Teuhtli roll away on the other side of the district, which is situated directly on top of the ancient site of pre-Columbian Xochimilco and what remains of Lake Xochimilco.
How to Get to Xochimilco
There are a few ways you can make the trip to the enthralling UNESCO area of Xochimilco from downtown CDMX.
The most popular is by metro and then light rail. First, aim for Tasqueña station in the area of Campestre Churubusco. That’s the end of the Blue Line, but also the starting point for the Tren Ligero, which is the railway that will whisk you all the way down to Xochimilco itself.
The total cost for this trip will be 5 MXN for the metro and 3 MXN for the Tren Ligero. The ride from Tasqueña takes around 30-35 minutes.
A direct Uber is probably the comfier and more convenient choice because you’ll get a pickup right outside your hotel door and a drop-off in the center of Xochimilco, close to the attractions. However, you’re looking at paying at least 190 MXN ($10) just for the ride. What’s more, traffic can be a nightmare in CDMX, so a transfer like this might take a whole load longer than the train!
Tips for Visiting Xochimilco
Before you set off to Xochimilco, be sure to check out my top tips. They should help your excursion run nicely and smoothly.
- Know what to expect
First, make sure you know what to expect. Most locals go to Xochimilco to party, so their boats with have music, drinks, many people and it will look very fun.
Tourists, on the other hand usually get a more quiet experience with a guy just rowing your boat. It can be peaceful or party-like, depending on how you want it to be.
- Haggle for the price of a trajinera
There are supposed to be upper limits on the amounts that the trajinera drivers can charge. From what I’ve seen, they are routinely ignored. It’s all a bit Wild West when it comes to settling on a price. If you speak Spanish you can pay less, if you don’t then you might overpay. Do not to accept anything over 1000 MXN an hour!
- Be sure you get the right Isla de las Munecas
Many people want to get to Isla de las Munecas, but it’s not so easy. There are two Isla de las Munecases these days. Only one is the real one and the other one is a replica built on the tourist route.
Trip to the real one takes around 1.5 hours each way to the island from the boarding point and it’s not something you can arrange on the spot as it’s privately owned, fenced up, and requires a permit.
If you don’t care, the replica on the “party tourist route” is just as creepy.
- Take a picnic
A day out on the Xochimilco canals is seen as a chill-out session by the locals. Feel free to pack a big picnic and plenty of ice-cold beer to take with you to get into the same spirit. The boats are well-equipped for big groups and dining on the water!
- Don’t miss the surrounding area
Xochimilco isn’t just about the ancient canals and the spooky Island of the Dolls. It’s also a living, breathing corner of Mexico City, with some enchanting churches and a buzzing marketplace. It’s a good idea to leave some time to explore all that too!
Tours of Xochimilco
Visiting Xochimilco is one of the best things to do in Mexico City so there are plenty of tour options if you want a stress-free day exploring the area.
Choosing a tour is another easy option for visiting Xochimilco. Doing this means you won’t have to deal with the crowds and stress of the Mexico City metro network, because you’ll be collected from your hotel in the morning and dropped back there at the end of the day.
Typical Xochimilco tours include transfers, a ride on one of the traditional trajineras boats (more on those later), and a stop at the replica of the spooky Isla de las Munecas (again, more on that later).
You can also fit Xochimilco into a multi-day tour of CDMX that includes other enthralling sites like the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Single-day outings start at around $30 per person but below is a list of the top tours to Xochimilco.
- Xochimilco, Coyoacán and Frida Kahlo Museum Tour – This group tour from Mexico City is a great choice if you want to see all that the area has to offer and are interested in learning more about Frida Kahlo.
- Xochimilco: Boat ride and Mexican Party – If you mostly want to experience a fun afternoon on the trajinera boats, this is the tour for you. Enjoy partying with your fellow participants on one of these colorful floating boats, just like the locals.
- Private City Tour in Frida Kahlo, Coyoacan, and Xochimilco – Prefer to have a guide and boat all to yourself? Book a private tour just for you and your friends or family.
- Mexico City Tour and Xochimilco Canal Boat Ride – This tour is a great choice if you are short on time as you can combine a tour of the whole of Mexico City with a ride on a trajinera in the interesting canals.
History of Xochimilco
The area now called Xochimilco has been inhabited by humans since anyone can remember. Hunter-gatherer nomads were the first to come, but they were replaced sometime around the 9th century AD by Nahua tribes who moved into the fertile Valley of Mexico from elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
The Nahua were the ones who began the tradition of building artificial islands to cultivate crops. Known as chinampa, they completely changed the geography of Xochimilco, converting it into an ancient breadbasket that produced everything from chili peppers to maize.
This innovative form of agriculture helped Xochimilco rise as one of the great powers of the region in pre-Columbian times until eventually being subsumed into the Aztec Empire.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, there were countless chinampa gardens in Xochimilco, along with a vast and intricate web of canals that linked all the main commerce centers in the Valley of Mexico.
They continued to be used throughout the colonial era for both food production and transportation. However, the 20th century saw a huge explosion in the size of Mexico City, and the urban sprawl began to take its toll.
By the 1970s, vast swathes of the Aztec canal system and its chinampa gardens had been gobbled up by the encroaching barrios. The decision was made to protect the ones in Xochimilco for posterity.
The whole area was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It’s now one of the most-visited outer districts of the capital, offering a unique glimpse of the ancient way of life of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico.
Things to Do in Xochimilco, Mexico City
This corner of CDMX is riddled with intriguing sights and activities, from cruisy water trips to eerie islets you won’t want to linger on too long…
Take a trip on a trajinera
The lazy ride on a trajinera boat is the highlight of Xochimilco. These colorful wooden skiffs will be your ticket to the pre-Aztec canal systems that filter through the historic Chinampa farms and into the heart of the ancient city.
They’re known for their lush vegetation and the smells of the flowers that waft over from the market gardens.
The boats themselves are a joy to be on. Most come with tables and wooden seats so you can enjoy a taco picnic as you go.
It’s really important to haggle and haggle hard when you come to board the trajinera. The CDMX authorities officially limit the price to 500 MXN per hour, but most visitors end up paying far more than that.
Special trajinera trips to spots like the Isla de las Munecas can be as much as 2000 MXN.
See Isla de las Munecas
The Isla de las Munecas is one of the stranger sights to see amid the waterways of Xochimilco.
The name in English means ‘The Island of the Dolls’, and the place doesn’t disappoint with its countless effigies of plastic children’s toys strewn in the trees, the mud, and on rickety wooden walls.
The story goes that the place was once the home of one Julian Santana Barrera, who came here to become a hermit but discovered the body of a dead girl floating in the nearby waters. The dolls were his way to ward off her spirit and keep her soul from haunting his new home.
Be warned that the Isla de las Munecas is now such a favorite among dark tourists that there’s even a copycat island doing the rounds. The real one lies around 1.5 hours by trajinera, very deep in the waterways of Xochimilco.
To ensure you get the right place, head to the port at Embarcadero Celada to catch the water taxi. It’s the closest of all to the official Isla de las Munecas. Expect to pay at least 2,000 MXN to get there and back.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the fake isla as you go – it’s much closer to the port and covered in black mesh fences that hold the dolls.
Keep watch for the age-old chinampa gardens as you sail through the waterways of Xochimilco.
There are only an estimated 5,000 or so left in the area, down from tens of thousands at the peak of the Aztec Empire.
Crafted from sunken reed boats laden with peat and mud, they’re manmade islets topped by uber-fertile growing land that was historically used to cultivate maize and pulses to feed the ancient Xochimilco peoples.
Today, they are known for their flower blooms and will smell darn fantastic if you catch them at the right time of the year.
Museo Dolores Olmedo
Just outside the waterways of the ancient archaeological and eco parks where you’ll sail and see the lush islands, the Museo Dolores Olmedo offers a taste of more modern Mexican culture.
It’s housed in a traditional hacienda estate that oozes Latin charm. The collections within include pieces by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There’s also a stunning Spanish-styled hermitage building on the grounds.
If you’ve got a little extra time to spare on your day trip to Xochimilco, you could hop in a taxi and head out to Cuahilama.
It’s a strange archaeological site, dotted with a few mystical Aztec and Nahuatl shrines that are covered in religious relief carvings and petroglyphs.
Sadly, the place is very poorly managed by the local authorities and there’s really no infrastructure. We also can’t vouch for the safety of the surrounding area, so be sure to have your wits about you if you decide to tack it onto the itinerary.
How Much Will a Day in Xochimilco Cost?
This day outing from Mexico City should cost less if you decide to skip a planned tour of Xochimilco and organize things yourself.
You’re basically looking at paying the 8 MXN ($0.40 USD) for the public transport there, double for a return, and about 500 MXN for a boat trip on one of the trajineras.
That adds up to less than $26 for the whole day, although it doesn’t include any food and drink you purchase along the way.
Alternatively, you can pay about $40 for a tour that goes to Xochimilco. They’ll usually include a one-hour trajinera trip, along with pickup and a drop off at your hotel. Trips to other spots like the spine-tingling Isla de las Munecas will add more to that total.
Where to Eat in Xochimilco
Some tours of Xochimilco will include a packed lunch, and you might want to dine onboard the trajinera boats like most of the locals do. Or, you can pick some food up from a food boat passing by…
If not, how about trying…
- Xochimilco Market – This sprawling bazaar is the best place to stock up on takeaway tacos, tropical fruits, popcorn, and all manner of Mexican street food before you board the boats. It’s also super cheap and all very local.
- Las Vaqueras – Conveniently located right by where you board the trajinera boats, Las Vaqueras is hailed as the home of Mexico City’s best michelada cocktails, which mix beer and lime juice, and spices in a salt-rimmed glass. Don’t knock it until you try it!
- Tacos “Los Jefes & Pantera” – You could ask your taxi driver to make a pit stop at this wonderful taqueria on the way to Xochimilco. It’s a few blocks to the west of the waterways but is highly rated for its spicy corn tortillas. There’s a very casual vibe and takeaway is possible if you’re planning a water-top picnic!