Finding farms, and solitude, in Mexico City

Mexico City’s concrete jungle and population of 20 million conceals an unexpected, enormous nature reserve, where artificial islands grow fresh produce and hardly a person is found.

When I first told friends I'd be visiting Mexico City – an urban centre of more than 20 million people – many warned me about the heavy traffic, the endless smog and the notorious crime. But they also mentioned its delicious street food, world-class cultural attractions – and what would be my favourite aspect of the city, the pockets of solitude where you can still hear the low-pitched croak of an egret and see fields of blooming marigold and poinsettia. That was the Mexico City I was determined to find. 

About a 20km drive south from the city’s Zócalo, or central plaza, lies Xochimilco, a once independent city founded around 900 AD. Today, Xochimilco is one of the 16 boroughs within the Mexican Federal District that makes up Mexico City proper. It also is the city's largest natural reserve, famous for its ancient system of shallow canals and chinampas, a method of Mesoamerican agriculture that utilises artificial islands for cultivating vegetables, herbs and flowers which is still in use today. With chinampas, the area's Aztec people were basically able to construct new space for farming on previously unhospitable land.

Xochimilco's oldest operating chinampas date as far back as the 12th Century. Unesco named them a World Heritage Site in 1987, and today these “floating gardens”, as they are also known, are a beloved tourist attraction – not to mention a major supplier of produce for families and restaurants throughout greater Mexico City. On weekends local families and tourists flock to the canals, browsing the souvenir stands that line the water banks and renting out space on one of the many trajineras – shallow-bottomed, gondola-style boats painted in electric shades of red, yellow, green and blue – that meander the waters. Some bring along tacos and tamales they've purchased en route; others buy cerveza (beer) and ears of grilled corn directly from the chalupas, or canoes, floating alongside them. With mariachi bands providing the musical entertainment, the entire scene seems like one big fiesta.

But while the area operating as a tourist attraction does a booming business, it only represents part of the nature reserve. A portion of the canals and chinampas has been set aside to form the Parque Natural Xochimilco: a more peaceful ecological reserve that's home to migrating birds, critically endangered salamander, and hardly a tourist in site. It's here, away from the crowds, that I learn the history behind the city's creative agricultural system – as well as discover the tranquillity I'd been hoping to find.

Mexico City native Ricardo Rodriguez Saavedra is the director of De La Chinampa a tu Mesa, an organization devoted to restoring Xochimilco's cultural heritage by connecting the public with the chinampas' pesticide-free agricultural producers. Saavedra also hosts guided tours along Parque Natural Xochimilco's canals, visiting working chinampas and providing insight into their cultivation of dozens of different plants and vegetables, including nopales (prickly pear cactus), espinaca (spinach) and calabazas (pumpkin), as well as herbs such as sage and lavender. According to Saavedra, over the past several decades many of the chinampas have actually been abandoned by the families that tend them, citing – in part – their inability to stay profitable. The chinampas that continue operating have owners that are more passionate about cultivation than turning a financial profit. Without them, however, Xochimilco will lose the exact thing that makes it unique.

Like the livelier side of Xochimilco's floating gardens, Saavedra’s tours take place on trajineras, but in a much quieter setting. “I've been offering tours for the last six years,” said the former financier, “because I want to generate awareness about Xochimilco, the chinampas, and the culture associated with them.”

To experience the work of the chinampas first hand, Saavedra treated us to a feast as we toured the canals. Aboard the boat was a cloth-covered picnic table set with handmade clay dishes and mugs, holding corn chips and homemade guacamole, a salad prepared with freshly picked chinampa produce, such as white onion and tomatoes, and served with two types of ranchero cheese, as well as plates of Oaxaca-style tamales filled with mushroom and guajillo chilli sauce. As we ate, Saavedra reminded us both what – and why – we were eating. “The food is an integral part of the tour,” he said, “because it's made with the produce that is being grown right here.” 

Throughout the next few hours, Saavedra taught us about the chinampas, their construction and their natural surroundings. Each chinampa is a rectangular platform typically about 6m wide by 91m long, covered in mud obtained from the surrounding shallow waters and fertilised by their nutrients. Basically, it's an inventive method of wetland farming conducive to the area, whose freshwater springs and shallow waters made it an ideal place for chinampa agriculture. The food grown here is used by some of Mexico City top restaurants, including Pujol, which some critics consider one of the top restaurants in the world. As we floated past rows of towering ahuejote trees, all was peaceful, save for the barks of a small dog running along the shore. We were virtually the only trajinera in the water.

I'd come searching for a soothing oasis in the heart of an urban centre, but had also found a diverse ecosystem integral to its surroundings. “The chinampas are entirely distinctive,” Saavedra said. “They're part of what identify us as Mexicans.”