Xochimilco, Permaculture and Chinampas

Last month I went to Mexico City and Guadalajara.   Great trip, maybe I’ll write about it later.    One of Mexico City’s attractions is the floating gardens of Xochimilco, which is on the southern edge of the giant metroplex.    It’s an interesting place at face value, but what put it on my radar was that it’s kind of considered the textbook example of chinampa farming, or at least what’s easily accessible for a traveler to see.

Chinampas are a method of agriculture developed in pre-Columbian Mexico where they would create artificial floating peninsulas with sediment and woven reeds along the banks of a body of fresh water.   These small areas were intensely cultivated and highly productive, because they could sustain so much life.    This system is probably the most pound-for-pound productive system we know of in agriculture.  The good folks at Midwest Permaculture do a great job of explaining the concept and showing pictures here.

There’s some key permaculture concepts at play in chinampas.     There’s the edge effect; there’s more productivity where two ecosystems meet.   Due to the narrow layout of chinampas, just about the whole thing is land interacting with water.   The deep root system creates another edge for aquatic life and usually there are trees which create another ecosystem above.    This means that there’s a lot more potential for interaction between species than in one clearly defined ecosystem (i.e. in the middle of the water, a field, etc.).   On a practical level this diversity keeps pests in check.   If one species gets out of hand, there’s always going to be something there to prey on it, unlike a field of corn or something where there’s not much diversity.    The plant mix was diverse as well, so a potential pest would only have so much to feed on anyways.    Oh, being surrounded by water created a microclimate that had a moderating effect on temperatures too – it’s a little warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Building a chinampa would’ve been a little labor intensive, at least more so than digging up the ground, but it saved labor in the long run.   There were no irrigation requirements as the surrounding water soaking in pretty much took care of that.   Once they were established it was just a matter of planting and picking.    On some chinampas they would build trellises between them where they would grow vines (squash, beans, whatever) over the water and harvest by boat.

So that’s the mile high view of chinampas.   A lot has been written about them and there’s a lot more that could be said about them.   On to Xochimilco…

Xochimilco is a town, I suppose a far-flung suburb of Mexico City even though as the crow flies it’s really not THAT far from the city center.    It takes about an hour and a half to get there from the city center – you take one subway line to the end of the line and link up with the above-ground train line that goes through the southern suburbs and Xochimilco is at the end of that line.   It’s not too difficult to get there, it just takes a little time.

The train station of Xochimilco is about a half mile from the boat docks (embarcaderos) and there’s signs guiding the tourist to these docks.   There are bicycle taxis that will take you there, but I decided to walk.    The town itself reminded me so much of Iraq to the point where it was almost kind of creepy.    The layout, the earthy colors of the buildings, narrow sidewalks, the kinds of businesses and the smell with almost exactly identical to the town that I was in there.   Even though it’s kind of a touristy place, it really didn’t look like it walking down the main drag.   I made it there late in the afternoon and figured that if I were out past nightfall, it would probably be a better idea to take one of those bicycle taxis to the station rather than walk through “real Mexico”.     To be fair, it did seem peaceful though.

I think I fell for one of their tricks.   When I got close to the docks, I turned and followed a sign.   An old man that was hanging out on the corner stopped me and pointed me down another block, which led to the first or second series of docks.   I guess these ones are the more expensive ones and they get a little cheaper the further you go down.   Oh well.   It cost about $25 US for some guy to spend an hour pushing my ass around some canals in a gondola.  Not a bad deal.

The canal system is lined by people’s homes, which was kind of cool.  People had little chinampas in their backyards and the gondoleer (?) pointed out a few different fruit trees.   I’m not fluent in Spanish, but good enough to have some very basic conversations so we didn’t talk too much about things.  I just asked about a few plants and he’d describe the fruits or whatever to me.

I only did a one hour tour, but if you pay more they will take you further out and show you more things of agricultural/botanical interest.    If I ever go back (and I’d like to), maybe I’d do that.     Although the parts I saw aren’t really used for agriculture, you could still feel how full of the life the place was an the effect on the microclimate from the trees and water.   There were a ton of ducks, fish and birds and everything was lush.   Oh, and floating mariachi bands.

The first time I read about this place was probably six years ago and I remember really being intrigued by it and put Mexico City on my “Hmm, maybe sometime” list of places to go and I’m glad I got to see the “Venice of the Americas”.   Although Xochimilco is more about floating around in a nice environment than showing permaculture in action, the permaculture background gave me a different perspective to see the place than the average tourist.   Anyways, here are a few photos:

A few other gondolas

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Someone’s backyard.   See the geese and the vines.

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Barking dogs

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I told you there were floating mariachi bands

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All of the boats have names and look kinda like this

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