The original Xochimilco outside of Mexico City has a fascinating history. The first people to settle in this region, found regular farming practices impossible due to the area’s extensive wetlands. They developed an alternative method to grow produce, which involved building artificial islands and fertilizing them with the mud from the lake floor. For centuries, these flourishing floating gardens fed thousands of inhabitants. This scenic setting soon attracted wealthy visitors who came from afar to glide through the tranquil canal system on trajineras (flat bed boats) and to enjoy the striking gardens. Today, Xochimilico, near Mexico City is a busy marketplace and popular tourist attraction for nationals and foreigners alike.
Although I knew very little of Xoximilco, the canal park bearing the same name near Cancun, was on the top of my list of things to see while on Christmas break. The lively, nightly attraction is located about 40 minutes from Playa del Carmen, near the International Airport. Created by Xcaret Experiences, a seasoned group of visionaries that are responsible for establishing other local eco-parks such as Xcaret, Xel-ha and Xenotes, visitors can expect an organized spectacle with top-notch entertainment value.
Upon arrival, our group of nine entered into the site’s main waiting area where instrumentalists played guitars, darts and foosball were waiting for the kids, and a typical regional snack, esquites (a creamy corn, mayonnaise, lime and chile) was available for guests to sample.
We purchased cold beer at the little convenience store ‘El Jacalito’ in the embarkment area, while we waited in line to register, receive our entrance bracelets and designation of our party’s boat. There were over a dozen vibrantly decorated vessels with names of various Mexican states lined up along the dock, which presented a beautiful photo op.
Having arrived at 7:30p.m, we had plenty of time to check in, go to the bathroom and have a pre-boarding beverage. At about 8:15, a bell rang which signaled the first call to board. Several staff called out the name of the state and guided visitors to the dock where they could take a group photo in front of the colorfully lit boats before hopping aboard.
Our gondola-like trajinera was captained by Mario, who steered us through the canals from one station (island) of musicians to another. Our host, Didier, made it his mission to ensure our crew had enough to eat and drink, all-the-while keeping the twenty guests on the boat highly engaged and happy.
We cruised by a band playing marimba music from the state of Chiapas as we were served an assortment of appetizers. We dipped totopos in a salsa made from Mayan pumpkin seeds and nibbled on ‘chapulines’ or fried grasshoppers (which do not taste nearly as bad as the idea of eating an insect sounds!) The kids were completely satisfied with the quesadillas and the chips and guacamole. Next up, we savored Nopal (cactus) salad, tamales and a cheese ball from the state of Oaxaca. The main dish was partitioned and featured several samplings of traditional favorites such as chicken in a mole sauce, pork in a green salsa, and shrimp in a tamarind sauce. As we dined, beer and tequila for the adults flowed freely, as did the fresh agua de Jamaica and Tamarindo for the kids. With help from the liquid courage, we were all inclined to get up and have a Riki Tiki dance off with other neighboring trajineras as the mariachi band belted out many popular renditions of famous Mexican songs.
Continuing on down the serene canals, we came upon a Bolero trio at one point and were enchanted by Jarocho folk music at another. Didier explained that Son Jarocho music originated in Veracruz, a southern state on the Gulf of Mexico. “La Bamba” is perhaps one of the most recognized songs in this genre of music, which resulted from a blend of the musical elements from the Spanish, indigenous and African population of Veracruz in Spanish colonial times.
Along the way, Mario made pit stops next to anchored supply boats with enthusiastic crews who restocked our bottles and passed Didier our next courses. Nearing the last stretch of our journey, we were each served a platter of assorted desserts, which included creamy caramels, pine nut fudge, sweet Amaranth squares, and chocolates, reserved for royalty back in the day. I am not particularly a fan of flan, but the one served that evening was one of the best I have tasted. To accompany our dessert, we drank ‘Café de Olla’, a traditional Mexican cinnamon and clove flavored coffee, sweetened with raw sugar cane (piloncillo). I was reluctant to drink the coffee at 10:30p.m but had a few sips of the warm goodness and still slept like a baby.
We were able to stop for an intermission halfway through and those that needed to use the restroom could do so. For the rest of us, yet another band was on stage to keep the party going. A few from our group did not hesitate to hit the dance floor.
The fiesta came to an end around 11:45p.m. At the last stop, an eight-man Mariachi band played their violins, strummed their guitars and blew their trumpets with gusto! A few trajineras were surrounding the stars of the grand finale and the crowd sang along as the animated musicians performed a series of well-known classics.
I would say that the majority of the visitors on that particular evening were nationals. However, between our group of mostly Canadians, which included our three children (ages 7-10) and my mother, who is in her late fifties and completely unfamiliar with Mexican music, a fun time was had by all!
My advice is, when the time comes to play a charged game of ‘Toques Toques’ or when your turn comes to holler like a Mariachi, don’t be afraid to participate! The atmosphere on the boat becomes even more electric and the smiles are contagious. Like many experiences in life, you will get back what you put into it!
Tips when visiting Xoximilco
- If possible, try to book online in advance. There is a 15% discount if you book 21 days prior or a 10% discount at least 7 days beforehand. Children 5 – 11 receive 50% off.
- It is recommended that you wear long pants (although we encountered no issue with mosquitos) and comfortable shoes.
- Apply all natural insect repellent. The night we went, bug spray was provided at the sinks near the washrooms.
- Book transportation or decide to have a designated driver.
- Tequila Traditional and beer are provided onboard, however if you prefer other spirits such as vodka or wine, they can be purchased at ‘El Jacalito’ the onsite convenience store, prior to boarding. Also bottled water and soda are provided.
- The park is open from 7:30p.m. – 12:00a.m, Monday to Saturday.
- Bring some extra cash for souvenirs, photos, and tips for your hosts.
- The tour is recommended for children 5 and older and lasts approximately 3.5 – 4 hours. We were back in our vehicle by 12:15 and home by 1a.m, which for us was a late night, but so worth it!
- Keep an open mind, try all the food, even the delicious grasshoppers, and ask the staff questions. The hosts have many stories to tell and are a wealth of interesting information!
- The park is wheelchair accessible.
- Each trajinera accommodates a maximum of twenty people. If you have a special occasion to celebrate and can get a group together, it is a very memorable experience to share with family or friends. On the other hand, if you are traveling as a couple, Xoximilco presents a fantastic alternative to the nightclubs for dancing, entertainment and mingling with other cultures.
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.