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With its art galleries, fascinating architecture and incredible cuisine, there’s no shortage to things to do in Mexico City’s Historic Centre.
But for something completely different, head 20 kilometres outside the downtown core and experience a tour to Xochimilco, a boat ride through the unique floating gardens of Mexico City.
This network of canals dates back to the time of the Aztecs, when the ancient peoples produced food on chinampas, pockets of arable land floating on the shallow lakes beds of the Valley of Mexico.
Organized Tour vs Independent Visit?
I’ve visited these Mexico City canals both on tours and independently. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to use your sightseeing time efficiently, I recommend you take one of the guided tours to Xochimilco.
Both my Guatemala-born husband and I speak Spanish fluently. And we found getting to Xochimilco on our own, finding the best boat and bartering for prices a bit confusing.
Many guided tours to the floating gardens of Xochimilco also include stops at other major Mexico City attractions. You can see Plaza Garibaldi, explore the Frida Kahlo museum and the district of Coyoacan, known for its colonial architecture, boutiques and cobblestone streets.
And sample mezcal and tequila along the way!
An organized tour to Xochimilco is also your best bet if you have just a weekend in Mexico City as you’ll save time and see more.
A Xochimilco tour is also safer (see below for scams), you won’t need to barter for prices and it’s less stressful.
Plus, you’ll learn more about the canals’ history and culture from a local guide than you will on your own.
Best Xochimilco Tours
1. Xochimilco, Coyoacan and Frida Kahlo Museum
Best for: Budget, Art Lovers.
Good to Know: Group tours take longer. Expect to wait for other people at the attractions
This Xochimilco, Coyoácan and Frida Kahlo Museum tour is the most comprehensive of the group tours available and offers great value.
The tour takes around 10 hours and includes sightseeing stops at major Mexico City attractions such as the historic Coyacan neighbourhood and Frida Kahlo Museum.
It wraps up with a ride on a traditional trajinera (painted gondola boat) in the floating gardens. Admission and transportation are included.
Check rates and availability of a Xochimilco, Coyoácan and Frida Kahlo Museum Tour on Viator.com
2. Mexico City Tour of Xochimilco, Mercado Sonora, Plaza Garibaldi and Tequila & Mezcal Museum
Best for: Foodies, Culture Lovers, Those Who Like Flexibility, Stress-Free Transportation.
Good to Know: Does not include Frida Kahlo Museum.
This Private Tour of Mercado Sonora, Plaza Garibaldi, the Tequila & Mezcal Museum and Xochimilco while pricier than budget tours, has a lot of advantages. They’re enough to vault it onto our list of the best options for a Xochimilco tour.
- To begin with you’ll be picked up and dropped off at your hotel. This will save you both time and money as you won’t have to taxi, Uber or Metro to a central meeting point.
- Lots of flexibility. Want to spend more time at Mercado Sonora? Want to request a mariachi song? No problem. It’s up to you how much time you’ll spend at each stop.
- It saves time. No waiting around for stragglers on a group tour.
- The attractions and sights may be of more interest than many other tours. Not only will you visit the traditional Mexican market Mercado Sonora as well as Plaza Garibaldi but you’ll also get to sample tequila and mezcal in addition to your ride in a boat at Xochimilco.
- Your dedicated, knowledgable guide is available to answer your questions.
Check prices and availability of a Private Tour of Mercado Sonora, Plaza Garibaldi, the Tequila & Mezcal Museum and Xochimilco on Viator.com.
3. Mexican Party at Xochimilco Floating Gardens
Best for: Authentic Local Culture, Fun, Led by Locals.
Good to Know: Transportation to Xochimilco is NOT included.
One of the best ways to experience Mexican culture is to party on a Xochimilco trajinera with a fun group of people.
These floating fiestas are popular among Mexicans for birthday parties, celebrations and family get togethers for a reason. You’ll discover why on this Mexican Party Tour of Xochimilco.
Led by Xochimilco locals, you’ll enjoy mariachi music, tequila shots and even make your own guacamole. You’ll also get to stop and explore the reptile zoo, chat with vendors, dance and generally let loose.
Check prices and availability of a Mexican Fiesta at Xochimilco on Viator.com.
Floating Gardens of Xochimilco Mexico City
All tours include the experience of floating on the canals of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You’ll tour in a trajinera, a brightly painted Mexican gondola, while enjoying food, drinks and entertainment (extra cost) along the way.
It’s a very popular activity for locals celebrating birthdays, engagements or family special occasions. So try to during the week when the crowds aren’t as large.
It’s also the kind of activity best enjoyed in a group or as a couple, so if you can gather a group of friends you’ll have more fun.
Book one of the boats and you’ll float through the peaceful canals learning about ancient traditions and enjoying food, drink and even mariachi music.
Prices are posted at the Embarcadero (dock). If you’re taking a guided tour to Xochimilco, your ticket includes the cost of the boat rental.
Weird Island of Dolls at Xochimilco Mexico City
One of the strangest sights I saw along the way was a display of dismembered dolls affixed to trees. It was an eerie, rather creepy sight.
It also happens to be a top spot during Day of the Dead when performances of the legend of la llorona take place in the neighbourhood.
According to the legend, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) is a woman who killed her children to be with her lover.
After he deserted her, she regretted her decision. Now, she roams the streets –from Guatemala to Mexico– lamenting the loss of her children for eternity.
But the Island of the Dolls or Isla de las Munecas was actually created by a local who found the body of a young girl floating in the canal.
Unable to save her from drowning, he collected dolls and attached them to trees on an island as a form of memorial.
Legend has it that her spirit now lives through the dolls and witnesses have reported seeing dolls’ limbs move, eyes open and other strange happenings.
I wasn’t keen to find out for myself so focused on sipping tequila and eating grilled corn that miraculously appeared from vendors floating by in canoes and dugouts.
Things to Do Near Xochimilco Mexico City
While Xochimilco is one of the most famous landmarks in Mexico, it also happens to be close to one of Mexico’s most under the radar attractions.
It’s very near the fascinating Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum, a historic hacienda that’s home to an important collection of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo plus vast botanical gardens and folk art.
Note: The Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino is temporarily closed. I’ll update this post when it reopens as it’s definitely worth adding to a Mexico City Itinerary.
If you’re looking for high quality souvenirs, the gift shop is one of Mexico City’s best. Dog lovers will enjoy learning about the museum foundation’s efforts to bring back the ancient Mexican dog breed, the Xoloitzcuintle or Xolo, a hairless canine once considered a holy animal by the Aztecs.
Check out this handy itinerary for 3 Days in Mexico City
How to Get to Xochimilco Mexico City without a Tour
If you’re doing it on your own, expect it to take 90 minutes by public transit.
First, take Metro Line 2 to station Taxqueña. From there exit and take Tren Ligero (light rail) and pay an extra fare. Ride the light rail to station Xochimilco, the very last station.
Then, walk or take a bicycle taxi through the market and village to the canals.
Or, if you’re in a group it can be cheaper and more convenient to take a taxi, Uber or Didi from your hotel even if you’re in Roma Norte or outside the Historic Centre.
If you’re travelling to Xochimilco independently, be sure to go to the central embarkation point NOT the small launching point.
Beware of motorcycle scammers. They’ll tell you the boats are closed, full or busy and try to steer you to the wrong embarkation dock.
Cost of Tours at Xochimilco Mexico City
Boat rental prices are fixed (posted on a billboard at the dock) depending on the size of the boat. But you can try to negotiate more time.
Vendors and roving mariachis float up to your boat to serenade you. Other boats will offer drinks and tasty grilled corn with chile, lime and mayo for an extra fee.
If you’re on the organized Mexican Fiesta Tour they negotiate costs for mariachi songs and food. This can save you money.
Getting Around Mexico City
There’s so much to explore in Mexico City, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by choices. Check out this guide to Mexico City for three days or longer for more ideas.
To help with navigation, GPSMyCity offers two city walks apps, a free version and a paid one. In the free version, users can view all the walk content, but WITHOUT any navigation assistance. For example, NO detailed walk route maps are included in the free version.
What’s also great about this, is that once you’ve downloaded the app it will work offline without internet connection. This means you don’t need to purchase mobile data plans or worry about paying roaming charges while in Mexico.
Other Bucket List Experiences in Mexico
You’ll get all-inclusive access to Xcaret’s theme park experiences. This includes the floating gardens of Xoximilco, modelled on these (the original) gondolas and canals in Mexico City.
Visiting Xochimilco Mexico City is worth it if you’re interested in traditional Mexican culture and history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only a great place for a Mexican fiesta on a trajinera (gondola) but the network of canals and chinampas (floating gardens) date back to the Aztec period and is historically significant. You’ll also enjoy typical food, mariachi music and drinks on your boat tour.
While Xochimilco Mexico City is popular among tourists (both domestic and international) the canals and floating gardens have a rich history dating back to the Aztec period. While parts of the canals are packed with vendors selling food, drink and trinkets, your gondola (trajinera) will also glide to peaceful stretches in the canals away from the crowds.
Although the shortest boat tour at Xochimilco takes only an hour, most people opt to visit the ecological reserve and/or the Island of the Dolls. That adds an extra hour or two. Factor in time to locate and board your boat plus travel time to Xochimilco (southern quadrant of Mexico City) and you need a minimum of half a day. Most excursions take 7-10 hours.
This post was originally published in 2015 but has been updated regularly after personal visits, most recently in 2023.
Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
Read more about Michele Peterson.