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Xochimilco: The Venice Aztecs Built

Do you like gondolas? Heck, of course you do; why wouldn’t you? Gondolas are awesome. They’re like boats, only they don’t suck. Instead of seasickness, you get the gentle sound of flat water parting before you. Fuck waves, because gondolas just glide across nice motionless waters – where everything is happiness and sunshine. Friendly faces everywhere:

Ok, fine, there’s nothing that great about a gondola ride. They’re only cool because they’re a somewhat unusual form of maritime transport. Moreover, most people think you’ve got to travel to somewhere like Venice to get a good gondola ride; but those people are wrong.

Xochimilco is the Venice of Mexico, and in more ways than you might expect.

The obvious way is that little detail that Xochimilco has canals. And where there be canals, there be gondolas, too. In fact, Xochimilco boasts a whopping 170 square kilometres of canals. Even that figure was once just the tip of the iceberg, with Xochimilco being barely a small remnant of a much larger canal system that stretched across the Valley of Mexico during Aztec times. These waterways served as both the Aztec Empire’s highways and irrigation systems. The islands between the canals were originally chinampas, or artificial floating gardens made from packed earth. Back in their heyday they were highly productive, and are today considered a potential model for future sustainable agriculture.

The easiest way to explore these remains of the Aztec world is with a gondola ride through the waterlogged streets of Xochimilco. It’s particularly neat to see locals using the canals as transport, jumping between their island homes. The most famous of these is the Isla de las Munecas: AKA, Doll Island. According to local legend, Doll Island’s weirdness started after a girl drowned there. The caretaker of the island had the unpleasant experience of finding the body. Shortly later, he found a doll floating in the same place. He decided the most rational thing to do in this situation was to string the doll up to a tree; because you know, that’s just what you do. That series of events kicked off what would become a 50 year obsession for the caretaker – an obsession with collecting gross dolls from the river and decorating his island with them. Right now, you might be asking, why this is a thing??? Yet after seeing the island for yourself, all you’ll be asking is how the fuck to get away from this terrifying Don Mancini-esque monstrosity as quickly as possible.

The Fun-Loving Gondoliers

Sadly, the dolls that now haunt your dreams aren’t the only nightmares Xochimilco has to offer. I mentioned before that Xochimilco is like Venice in more ways than one. That’s because along with spooky dolls, the place is also full of penny pinching naval entrepreneurs who are out to screw you for as much as possible (at least in our experience).

Despite us going on an empty weekday, the gondola guys still tried to charge us up to ten times the official price for a ride. For reference, the standard rate should be MX$350 (US$18) per boat, per hour. Mr BoatyMcRipOff tried every trick in the book to screw us on this one, including claiming the price was per person, or just making up random inflated numbers. To get anywhere near MX$400-500, we had to shop around, haggle like mad, fake leave a few times, and wade through wave after wave of bullshit. Moreover, if you’re expecting the kind of impassioned yet good-hearted haggling common in regions like Asia, you’re wrong again. Our guy was infuriated the whole time because we refused to pay hundreds of dollars for a one hour trip; so much so, that they refused to offer anything longer than 45 minutes (unless we were willing to accept one of their constant offers to extend our trip for a special price). The endless efforts to squeeze more money out of us did put a bit of a dampener on the ride. When my exasperated girlfriend eventually told our gondolier that we live in Mexico, and his dozenth special discount extended offer was basically worth our weekly income, the guy whipped out the most diplomatic riposte ever.

He openly accused us of lying.

As if to try to top our apparent “lie”, he then went on to feed us a story about how his house was destroyed in a recent earthquake, before nodding towards a sign that said the suggested tip was MX$150. After almost two years of living in Mexico, I can’t say I’ve ever handed over a tip like that, and certainly didn’t do so that day.

I might sound a bit bitter, but Xochimilco really is quite an experience. If you can get past the gondoliers without taking out a mortgage, you’ll find the trip down the canals pretty damn delightful.

If you’re looking see Xochimilco for yourself, the instructions on WikiTravel were accurate at the time of writing.

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