Mexico's 'Venice' Attracts Families Who Come for Floating Picnics, Parties

LIKE a forgotten, makeup-caked Hollywood starlet, Xochimilco bears her faded glory with stubborn dignity.

Once festooned with flowers, the flat-bottom boats or trajineras make do with a decor of fluorescent spray-painted tissue paper. The canals, once fed by crystal springs, are now kept full with pea-green, treated sewage water. Fewer and fewer tourist buses arrive these days.

"It was very beautiful here before," recalls Guillermo Gonzalez Garcia, an old-timer who first took customers out in his father's trajinera when he was seven years old. "The government tapped the springs for drinking water in 1952 and abandoned us," he says bitterly.

This 189-kilometer network of canals within the Mexico City limits is all that remains of the Mexico Valley lake system.

Settled by one of the Aztec tribes, Xochimilco means "place where the flowers grow." About 1,000 years ago, the natives made rafts of woven twigs, covered them with dirt, and planted flowers and vegetables. Gradually, the roots of these floating gardens attached themselves to the lake bed, creating small islands or chinampas.

Although pollution and the encroaching metropolis have shrunk production, these now large, fertile chinampas are still used to grow flowers and some vegetables.

Plying the narrow channels between the islands, one can see small barges loaded with carnations or roses on the way to market. Children in white uniforms pole their wooden skiffs to school. Cows and horses graze on the chinampas. On weekends, many farmers double as remeros - the men who propel the launches for tourists.

The Xochimilco tourism business limps along on a faithful clientele of mostly lower- and middle-class Mexicans, who come on Sundays and holidays, filling some 700 boats based at various locations along the main canal.

For 35,000 pesos ($11.50) a boat that seats 20 people can be rented for an hour. Mexican families come for floating picnics, weddings, birthdays, or anniversary parties. The 2 to 3 kilometers (1.2 to 1.9 miles) of canals generally shown to tourists are shared by a flotilla of laid-back vendors.

"Rosas, senor?" gently queries one of many gray-haired women in tiny kayaks carrying cut flowers.

The air is filled with crooning mariachis plying the waterway: 20,000 pesos per song. Or, bargain hunters can listen to marimba music for 6,000 pesos per melody. Hungry? There's a bevy of boats selling tortillas, corn-on-the-cob, and drinks.

Despite Mr. Gonzalez's assessment that the government has let Xochimilco deteriorate, the spot remains something of an urban oasis, a quiet refuge from Mexico City's hot sidewalks, noxious fumes, and boisterous traffic. And the city has recently embarked on an ecological rescue plan.

New sewage systems are being laid, and another water-treatment plant has been built. The northern canal network continues to sink because of over-exploitation of the subterranean water supplies, and this in turn drains water off from the southern canals. To remedy the problem, the city is building small locks to maintain minimum water levels.

By the end of this year, the city also hopes to spruce up Xochimilco's image by creating a "natural" park that will host a relocated flower market, sports areas, restaurants, a museum, a lagoon, and use a new set of canals for tourists.

"It's going to be like Reino Aventura [Adventure Kingdom - a local amusement park]," says Guillermo Flores Vargas, echoing a common opinion among the remeros. "All the tradition will be lost."

But judging by conditions now, Xochimilco's traditions have been draining away for some time. "Perhaps," says one tourism official, "the park will enable us to create new ones."

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