Xochimilco (Spanish pronunciation: [sotʃiˈmilko, ʃotʃiˈmilko]; Classical Nahuatl: Xōchimīlco, pronounced [ʃoːtʃiˈmiːlko]listen(help·info)) is one of the 16 mayoralities (Spanish: alcaldías) or boroughs within Mexico City. The borough is centered on the formerly independent city of Xochimilco, which was established on what was the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco in the precolonial period. Today, the borough consists of the eighteen “barrios”, or neighborhoods, of this city along with fourteen “pueblos”, or villages, that surround it, covering an area of 125 km2 (48 sq mi). The borough is in the southeastern part of the city and has an identity that is separate from the historic center of Mexico City, due to its historic separation from that city during most of its history. Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. These canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas, attract tourists and other city residents to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras” around the 170 km (110 mi) of canals. This canal and chinampa system, as a vestige of the area’s precolonial past, has made Xochimilco a World Heritage Site. In 1950, Paramahansa Yogananda, in his Autobiography of a Yogi, wrote that if there were a scenic beauty contest, Xochimilco would get the first prize. However, the impacts of colonization as well as severe environmental degradation of the canals and chinampas have brought that status into question.
Canals, chinampas and trajineras
Lake Xochimilco and the canal system
Xochimilco is characterized by a system of canals, which measure about a total of 170 km2. These canals, and the small colorful boats that float on them among artificially created land called chinampas, are internationally famous. These canals are popular with Mexico City residents as well, especially on Sundays. These canals are all of what is left of what used to be a vast lake and canal system that extended over most parts of the Valley of Mexico, restricting cities such as Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and Xochimilco to small islands. This system of waterways was the main transportation venue, especially for goods from the pre-Hispanic period until the 20th century. In the pre-Hispanic period, parts of the shallow lakes were filled in, creating canals. Starting in the early colonial period, the interconnected lakes of the valley, including Lake Xochimilco, were drained. By the 20th century, the lakes had shrunk to a system of canals that still connected Xochimilco with the center of Mexico City. However, with the pumping of underground aquifers since the early 20th century, water tables have dropped, drying canals, and all that are left are the ones in Xochimilco. The canals are fed by fresh water springs, which is artificially supplemented by treated water. This because water tables are still dropping and human expansion and filling in of canals is still occurring, threatening to have the last of these canals disappear despite their importance to tourism. An axolotl
These remaining canals and their ecosystem was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, with the purpose of saving them. An important part of this ecosystem is a willow tree called a “ahuejote” that is native to the shallow waters of the lake/canals. These stem erosion, act as wind breakers and favor the reproduction of a variety of aquatic species. Some of these endemic species include a freshwater crayfish called an acocil, and the Montezuma frog. However, the most representative animal from these waters is the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum). This amphibian was used as a medicine, food and ceremonial object during the Aztec Empire. It was considered to be an incarnation of the god Xolotl, brother of Quetzalcoatl. It has been studied due to its abilities to regenerate limbs and other body parts. It can also reach sexual maturity as a larva, which no other amphibian can do. While mostly aquatic, it does have limited ability to breathe air. As of 2003, there were only 600 axolotls known to exist in the wild. Most of the threat to the species is loss of habitat and pollution, but the introduction of non-native fish such as tilapia has also had disastrous effects on the population of this and other species. Conservation efforts include research and environmental education. The Grupo de Investigación del Ajolote en Xochimilco (GIA-X) is a nonprofit research group dedicated to the preservation of the axolotl, which is in danger of extinction. It works to better understand the creature as well as with the local community to protect what is left of its habitat. In addition to species that live in the area year round, the wetlands here host about forty percent of the migratory bird species that arrive to Mexico, roughly 350, use the wet areas around Xochimilco for nesting. Many of these come from the United States and Canada. However, much of this habitat has been urbanized. About 700 species have been found in the area overall. Some of the migratory species include pelicans, storks, buzzards and falcons. Mariachis playing for tourists on the canals
The destruction of the last of these canals began in the 1950s. At that time, groundwater pumping under the city center was causing severe subsidence. These wells were closed and new ones dug in Xochimilco and other southern boroughs. High rates of extraction have had the same effect on water tables and canals began to dry. Since then reclaimed wastewater has been recycled to flow into the Xochimilco canals to supplement water from natural sources. However, this water is not potable, containing bacteria and heavy metals and the canals still receive untreated wastewater and other pollution. Another major problem, especially in the past two decades has been the population explosion of Mexico City, pushing urban sprawl further south into formerly rural areas of the Federal District. This prompted authorities to seek World Heritage Site status for the canals and the pre-Hispanic chinampa fields to provide them with more environmental protection. This was granted in 1987, but these same major environmental problems still exist. A 2006 study by UNESCO and Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana has shown that there are still very high levels of pollution (both garbage and fecal matter) in the canals and there still a rapid rate of deterioration 2,000 hectares of protected area. UNESCO has placed the most blame for the problems on the proliferation of illegal human settlements in the protected zone. Each year the borough loses six hectares of former lakebed to illegal settlements. According to the borough, about 90,000 people in Xochimilco live in illegal settlements, such as those in ecological zones, and 33,804 families live illegally on the chinampas. The most problematic are those closest to the canals, which cause the most pollution. The area is also sinking 18 cm (7.1 in) per year due to over pumping of groundwater, and canals are being filled in illegally. The deterioration is happening so fast, that UNESCO has threatened to pull Xochimilco World Heritage Site status. Edges of canals supported by planks
Other major problems facing the canal system is the damage by introduced species and disease destroying native ones. Water lilies were introduced to the canals from Brazil in the 1940s. Since then, they have become a serious problem as their overgrowth depletes minerals and oxygen from the water. Up to 400 tons of the plant has been extracted from the canals monthly. In 2006, a Brazilian insect (Anthonomus grandis) was introduced to the canals to help control the plant. However, some need to be maintained because the axolotls are using them for reproduction purposes. Introduced species include carp and tilapia, which were introduced in the 1960s. However, these have been very detrimental to the native ecosystem, especially the axolotl, whose eggs they eat. Despite tons of the fish being caught in the canals, they are still a serious problem. Another major problem is the loss of trees, especially junipers in the ecological zone. Over sixty percent of the area is considered to be serious deforested and eighty percent of the junipers have the parasitic plant mistletoe. Rower on one of the Cuemanco canals
Since being declared a World Heritage Site, there have been attempts to rescue the canal system. The first major effort occurred between 1989 and 1994, which was called the “Rescate Ecológico.” It had the goal of constructing a large artificial lake for tourism and sports covering 360 hectares, ten times the size of the lake in Chapultepec Park. These would be divided into two parts called the Ciénega Grande and Ciénega Chica on the side of the Periférico Sur. It would also include the creation of a chinampa zone and areas for culture and commerce and elevated buildings over the two sides of the Periférico Sur similar to those in the San Jerónimo area. However, this plan was stopped by agricultural communities in the area, which have a long history of defending their rights. However, since then, the area has been urbanized. It was replaced by a much smaller lake, with ecological area and plant market. In 2008, borough authorities began a reforestation program over 5,000 hectares of chinampas and forested areas at a cost of 20 million pesos. This program includes the cutting of non native species such as eucalyptus and certain pines and cedars to eradicate plagues associated with them. However, residents near forests such as in Nativitas oppose the cutting of healthy trees. These will be replaced by native species, especially junipers in the chinampa areas. However, it is still estimated that because of the continuance of urban sprawl, the remaining canals and protected land will disappear within fifty years.
The canals of Lake Xochimilco were initially created along with artificial agricultural plots called chinampas. Chinampas were invented by the pre-Hispanic peoples of the region around 1,000 years ago as a way to increase agricultural production. On the shallow waters of the lakes, rafts were constructed of juniper branches. Onto these rafts floating on the water, lakebed mud and soil were heaped and crops planted. These rafts, tied to juniper trees, would eventually sink and a new one be built to replace it. Over time, these sunken rafts would form square or rectangular islands, held in place in part by the juniper trees. As these chinampa islands propagated, areas of the lake were reduced to canals. These “floating gardens” were an important part of the economy of the Aztec Empire by the time the Spanish arrived. Today, only about 5,000 chinampas, all affixed to the lake bottom, still exist in their original form, surrounded by canals and used for agriculture. The rest have become solid ground and urbanized. In the center of Xochimilco, there are about 200 chinampas, covering an area of 1,800 hectares. However, one reason the number has decreased is that smaller chinampas have been combined to create larger ones. While there are still those who maintain chinampas traditionally, and use them for agriculture, the chinampa culture is fading in the borough, with many being urbanized or turned into soccer fields and sites for housing and businesses. The deterioration of many of these chinampas can be seen as their edges erode into the dark, polluted water of the canals. The most deteriorated chinampas are located in the communities of Santa María Nativitas, Santa Cruz Acalpixca, San Gregoria Atlapulco, and Ejido de Xochimilco. Together, these have a total of thirty eight illegal settlements. To repair a number of chinampas, the borough, along with federal authorities, has reinforced 42 km (26 mi) of shoreline, of the 360 km (220 mi) that exist in the lake area. This involves the planting of juniper trees and the sinking of tezontle pylons into the lakebed. These remaining chinampas are part of the Xochimilco World Heritage Site. Have since changed use and become residences and businesses. Those that remain agricultural are mostly used as nurseries, growing ornamental plants such as bougainvilleas, cactuses, dahlias, day lilies, and even bonsai. As they can produce up to eight times the amount of conventional land, they are still an important part of the borough’s agricultural production. There have been various attempts to save the remaining chinampas, including their cataloging by UNESCO, UAM, and INAH in 2005, and various reforestation efforts, especially of juniper trees.
The Island of the Dolls
About an hour long canal ride from an embarcadero, pier, lies Isla de las Muñecas, or the Island of the Dolls. It is the best-known chinampa, or floating garden, in Xochimilco. It belonged to a man named Don Julián Santana Barrera, a native of the La Asunción neighborhood. Santana Barrera was a loner, who was rarely seen in most of Xochimilco. According to the legend, One Early morning a young girl and her sisters went swimming in the canal but the current was too strong. The sisters got separated and the current pulled one of the sisters all the way down the canal when Santana Barrera discovered the young girl while she was drowning. When Santana finally got to her she was already dead. He also found a doll floating nearby and, assuming it belonged to the deceased girl, hung it from a tree as a sign of respect. After this, he began to hear whispers, footsteps, and anguished wails in the darkness even though his hut—hidden deep inside the woods of Xochimilco—was miles away from civilization. Driven by fear, he spent the next fifty years hanging more and more dolls, some missing body parts, all over the island in an attempt to appease what he believed to be the drowned girl’s spirit.
After Barrera’s death in 2001—his body reportedly found in the exact spot where he found the girl’s body fifty years before—the area became a popular tourist attraction where visitors bring more dolls. The locals describe it as “charmed”—not haunted—even though travelers claim the dolls whisper to them. The dolls are still on the island, which is accessible by boat. The island was featured on the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures and the Amazon Prime show Lore. It was also featured in BuzzfeedUnsolved where Ryan and Shane visited the island with a guide, who lead them around the island during the night.
Aside from the canals and trajineras, the best-known attraction in Xochimilco is the Dolores Olmedo Museum. This museum was once the home of socialite Dolores Olmedo. Before this, it was the main house of the La Noria Hacienda, established in the 17th century. Before she died, Ms. Olmedo decided to donate her house, much of what was in it and her art collection to the public as a museum. The buildings are surrounded by gardens planted with native Mexican species, around which wander peacocks. Another area houses a number of xoloitzcuintle dog. The museum’s collection includes about 600 pre Hispanic pieces, the largest collection of works by Diego Rivera at 140 pieces, as well as a number of works by Frida Kahlo and Angelina Beloff. It also contains rooms filled with furniture, items from many parts of the world and everyday items used by Olmedo and her family. In November, the museum set up a monumental altar to the dead.
The Museo Arqueológico de Xochimilco (Archeological Museum of Xochimilco) began as a collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts such as ceramics, stone items, bones, and more that had been found in the area, often during construction projects. In 1965, the museum began to display these items to the public. In 1974, the collection moved permanently to a late 19th-century house, which was restored in the 1980s and inaugurated under its current name. This collection contains 2,441 pieces, mostly ceramic and stone objects, including figures, cooking utensils, arrowheads. It is located on Avenida Tenochtitlán in Santa Cruz Acalpixca. Located to one side is one of the fresh water springs that feed the canals. On the other sides are gardens. View of part of the Xochimilco Ecological ParkAnother view of the Xochimilco Ecological Park
Near the archeological museum is a site called Cuahilama. It is a hill that rises about fifty meters above the lakebed. The site consists of terraces and twelve petroglyphs that date to about 1500. The most important of these is called the Nahualapa, a map that contains the locations of 56 sources of water, Lake Xochimilco, eight buildings and a large quantity of roads and paths. Girl on horse at the Bosque de Nativitas
As much of the borough is still classified as an ecological reserve, there are a number of green areas open to the public. These include several “forests” such as the Bosque de Nativitas, the Xochimilco Ecological Reserve, the Centro Acuexcomatl, and Michmani Ecotourism Park. There are several parks designated as forests such as the Bosque de Nativitas and the Bosque de San Luis Tlaxialtemaco. These are considered “areas of environmental value” by the city and established to counter some of the damage caused by urban sprawl in Xochimilco. These areas are open to the public but with minimal services such as picnic tables and horseback riding. The largest ecological area is the Xochimilco Ecological Reserve, inaugurated in 1993. It covers over 200 hectares and is filled with numerous plant and animal species that live or migrate here. The park also contains a bike path, thirty five athletic fields, a flower market and a visitor center. It is second in size only to Chapultepec Park. It is also possible to travel in some of the canals here by trajinera. The Centro de Educación Ambiental Acuexcomatl (Acuexcomatl Environmental Education Center) is located on the road between Xochimilco center and Tulyehualco. It contains fish farms, beekeeping, plant nurseries and greenhouses as well as sports facilities, classrooms, workshops, an auditorium, an open-air theatre and a cafeteria. It is in Colonia Quirino Mendoza. Michmani is an ecotourism program sponsored by the borough, which is situated on fifty hectares of chinampas. The site offers kayaking, recreational fishing, a temazcal, cabin rentals and environmental education.
The crater of the Teoca volcano has a sports facility with jai alai, gymnasiums and a soccer field.
The Virgilio Uribe rowing tracks was built for the 1968 Olympics in one of the canals. It measures two km long and 125 meters (410 ft) wide. It is still used for canoeing, kayaking and rowing.