Erica Abad glides down the ancient canals of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, on her gondola-like boat. Her cousin, Efren Lopez, steers their boat — called a chalupa — by pushing against the canal floor with a long wooden pole, while Abad flips a sizzling quesadilla on a steel griddle fitted into the boat. When a group of people on a nearby barge signal to them to order some quesadillas, Lopez navigates the boat toward them. And Abad places a few more quesadillas on the griddle for their customers. As the quesadillas turn golden, with the cheese inside perfectly melted, she fills them with huitlacoche (a deliciously earthy fungus that grows on organic corn), mushroom, chorizo, squash blossom and other ingredients.
Abad’s chalupa is among many selling traditional Mexican street food and drinks, including sopes (a tortilla topped with refried beans, chorizo or ground beef, lettuce, salsa and a grated salty cheese called cotija), roasted corn and pulque (an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of an agave plant).
The boats are surrounded by floating chinampas — gardens — with plants and small animals, like frogs, crayfish and salamanders. One chinampa is allegedly haunted, with creepy toy dolls hanging from nooses on trees.
Gliding past these gardens and boats are Xochimilco’s famous trajineras — vibrantly painted barges — that are filled with people knocking back micheladas (a spicy drink made with Clamato, beer and lime). Some barges even have mariachi bands playing on them.
This is a typical day in this ancient borough, whose name means “the garden of flowers” in Nahuatl, a language of the Aztecs. The chinampas were built centuries ago by indigenous settlers, who had found themselves surrounded by wetlands and needed to create spaces for growing plants like cactus, bougainvillea, bonsai and dahlias. So, they made floating gardens with tree branches, soil and mud, and tied them to juniper trees on the banks, to hold them in place. Over the years, the older gardens sank and new ones were on top of them. Today, the chinampas are no longer tethered to the banks. They look like little floating islands with plants, houses and other buildings on them.
The canals, which once helped transport goods from Xochimilco to other places, have evolved into a popular day trip destination in the last century. This borough’s history, beauty and a continuing campaign to protect the place from deterioration led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Locals and tourists visit to enjoy the scrumptious street foods and alcohol, with the colorful sights and sounds all around. Lined up along the concrete loading dock is a long line of trajineras, with bright, swirly shapes and floral patterns painted on them. Their colors and designs have been an unchanging part of the boats for hundreds of years, reflecting the indigenous roots of the culture here. The trajinera have modern names these days — like Fernanda, Beatriz and Shakira.
A newlywed couple, their wedding guests and a mariachi band dressed in white, board a trajinera with “nuestra boda” (“our wedding”) spelled out in roses on an arched metal covering that shades the seated passengers. They drink and dance on their way to their reception, passing barges with a bachelorette party and a family enjoying lunch.
You can spend an hour or four making your way down the long canals and experience a visual and aural symphony. There’s music everywhere. There are mariachi bands for hire. Or you can simply enjoy the Latin pop or club jams by rapper DMX blaring from rented stereos on passing trajineras. Dancing and singing at the top of your lungs are encouraged.
As you float down the canals that once were inhabited by the Aztec and other indigenous communities, you’re treated to the smell of frying oil from boats selling quesadillas or the steam from boats selling elote (roasted corn smothered in butter, crema, cotija cheese, lime and hot sauce). And when you’re hungry, the boats will feed you and ply you with beer.
The street food here is special — made with local ingredients deeply embedded in Mexico’s history. For example, the huitlacoche fungus goes back to the Aztecs, who gave it its somewhat unappetizing name, which means ‘raven’s excrement.’ Food vendors take pride in the quality and home-cooked taste of their food. Lopez says all their quesadilla fillings are slow and patiently cooked at home before bringing it to her chalupa.
And here in Xochimilco, you can enjoy these delicacies in a setting unlike anywhere in the world.