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Xochimilco, the Venice of the Aztec Empire

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Floating Gardens of Xochimilco
Credit: Rocio Carvajal

A popular tourist attraction located south of Mexico City is Xochimilco, the Venice of the Aztec Empire. It’s the last remaining part of an extensive system of interconnected lakes, swamps and marshlands.

A typical trip to Xochimilco involves sailing the busy canals on colorful boats called trajineras. These boats have been specially adapted with a roof, tables and chairs to accommodate travelers as the punter masterfully moves the trajinera along Xochimilco’s canals.

It’s no surprise to see on board these vessels mariachi bands, trios playing polkas, marimba players and other traditional music bands playing cheerful songs on request as groups of friends, families and couples enjoy this very unique live soundtrack.

The canals spread over 100 square miles, but just a fraction of them are open to public punting. On each side of the canals there are hundreds of artificial floating allotments delimited by thousands of juniper trees, these allotments date back to pre-Columbian times, as the Mexica people who settled in that region created their own self-sufficient agricultural system. But we’ll get back to that later, for now let’s focus on our trip.

The whole Xochimilco experience involves drinking and eating on board the trajineras as smaller boats with floating food stalls come and go, offering all sorts of treats that go from fritters, candied apples, candy floss, tamales and pulque, which is an alcoholic drink made with fermented agave sap. Many women also sell ready made dishes like mole, cactus salad, consomes, barbecued meats, roasted chicken, stuffed chilies, gorditas, quesadillas and side dishes like rice, beans, fresh cheese and plenty of corn tortillas for hungry visitors to tuck in while they sing, laugh and even dance on board. Frida Kalho famously enjoyed frequent visits to Xochimilco where she and her friends enjoyed many picnics and delighted in the intensely green surroundings.

Now, let’s look beyond the tourist postcards and find out why Xochimilco and the other interconnected lakes were so important for the indigenous population of these valleys in in pre-Columbian times.

The earliest records of human presence in this area date back to nearly 7,000 years ago but actual urban settlements did not appear until 1325 CE when nomad tribes, following the prophecies of their priests, found the sign they had long waited to see: an eagle devouring a snake on top of a nopal or cactus at the center of a lake. That was the sign that indicated they had finally arrived at the Promised Land where there was an abundance of food. It was a safe and fertile place where they could finally settle and put an end to centuries of incessant migration, which started back in the 6th century.

The prophecy as told to the priests by none other than Huizilopochtli, the god of War, said that when they saw an eagle eating a snake at the center of a lake, that was the place they should settle and build the most beautiful city that would become the capital of the most powerful empire. A magnificent city was indeed built at the center of the Texcoco lake north of Xochimilco and it became the capital of the mighty Aztec Empire.

Things looked bright for the Mexica who only had to solve the small issue of food security. As we know an empire is only as powerful as its ability to ensure enough food for its population, so an epic indigenous agricultural engineering project slowly created an artificial landscape of thousands of floating allotments anchored to the bottom of lake with the help of strong juniper trees. Although they might give the impression of being emerald square islands, the fact that they were anchored and had a secured platform, meant that the Mexica could then create raised beds in which they grew corn, beans, chillies and other vegetables, which might have seemed like a floating Eden. The rich biodiversity of the lake’s ecosystem allowed them to benefit from it by farming fish, insects and amphibians, as well as hunt birds and ducks.

But the ever-growing population of Texcoco needed to ensure larger supplies of food and so the Aztecs seized control of the interconnected lakes including Xochimilco by means of aggressive military campaigns.

Now, you might not be aware that spirulina, the green and smelly superfood that can now be found on the shelves of posh healthy food shops and hipster juice bars was another food largely farmed in Texcoco and Xochimilco, Tlecuitlatl, as it was called, was sold dried and wet in markets. It was often added to salsas, mixed with stews and even used as a seasoning. And just in case you were wondering, the nahatl word Tlecuitlatl actually means “rock’s poo”… nice.

Nowadays, Xochimilco attracts many tourists who enjoy a very unique day out away from the incessant rat race of the city. It is well worth exploring as you can also visit the many greenhouses that still produce flowers and many edible herbs, and of course, you can’t miss the delicious food that is a crucial part of the experience.

As a final note, let me tell you what happened to this lake system. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1521, Cortes decided to destroy the whole of Tenochtitlan, which was the name of the capital of the Aztec empire and the surrounding citadels on the other nearby lakes. After that, in his infinite wisdom, he commissioned engineers to drain the lakes, import earth and build the city of Mexico on top of this muddy mess. As a result, this decision brought severe ecological consequences.

If you have been to Mexico City or are planning to go, please pay special attention to the historical buildings in the center of the city. Many are leaning on one side or partially sunken. This is due to the thick, unstable soil layer where the body of water that formed the lake used to be. It never became completely solid.

But more importantly, as these lakes dried up it has meant that since colonial times the city of Mexico was doomed to forever rely on a permanent supply of fresh produce and water to survive.

Now that you know this history, go forth and eat spirulina like you mean it. It might well awaken the Aztec warrior in you!

You can listen to this and other delicious stories on episode #5 of Pass the Chipotle Podcast.

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