When the first nomadic settlers arrived in the Valley of Mexico, now 21 km (13 miles) south of Mexico City center, they found an enormous lake. As the years went by and their population grew, the land could no longer satisfy their agricultural needs. They solved the problem by devising a system of chinampas (floating gardens), rectangular structures akin to barges, which they filled with reeds, branches, and mud. They planted the barges with willows, whose roots anchored the floating gardens to the lake bed, making a labyrinth of small islands and canals on which vendors carried flowers and produce grown on the chinampas to market.

Today Xochimilco is the only place in Mexico where the gardens still exist. Go on a Saturday, when the tianguis (market stalls) are most active, or, though it's crowded, on a Sunday. On weekdays the place is practically deserted, so it loses some of its charm. Hire a trajinera (flower-painted boat); an arch over each spells out its name in flowers. As you sail through the canals you'll pass mariachis and women selling tacos from other trajineras.

For Xochimilco, take metro line No. 2 to Tasqueña; here hop on the tren ligero (light-rail) that continues south to Xochimilco. Expect a bit of a free-for-all outside the station, as several guides—often on bicycles—will be waiting to direct tourists to the gardens. Official tour guides, employed by the government, wear identifying tags; any other guides volunteering to take people to the gardens take them to a specific trajinera rental business that pays them for bringing in clients. You can cast your lot with a guide (official or not) or catch any bus marked "Xochimilco"; buses usually pick up passengers right outside the train station. To walk to the nearest trajinera embarcadero (dock), head down Cuauhtémoc for three blocks, then make a left on Violeta. Continue on Violeta for two blocks (you'll see signs pointing toward "Belen," the embarcadero), and turn right off Violeta at Nezahualcóyotl. Alternatively, you could take a sitio taxi (around MX$200 or more). The trip should take between 45 minutes and one hour from the downtown area, depending on traffic.


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