Around 10am, we left in two cars. The car driven by Sandra and Abel arrived on time to Xochimilco. The uber that I was in, did not. The way to Xochimilco is confusing, appearing to be hidden in back alleyways. Our uber driver seemed to be on his first day on the job, trying to take us down closed road ways and doing many, many confused u-turns through the neighborhood. Along the way, there were men wearing laminated name tags or something of the sort. We thought they were official helpers, guiding us to the dock we needed. We were meeting at Natividad entrance. Once we arrived, Sandra assured us they were scam artists who made sure you went to a specific dock, being paid a stipend by those running that dock. By the time we made it there, Sandra had already negotiated and lined up our trajinera boat for we were going on a canal tour of floating gardens, ending at Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls).
After a quick stop to the restroom (don’t forget to bring 5 pesos or you will not get toilet paper!) we climbed on our brightly colored trajinera. There were tons of these along the dock, ready to be rented. They have a long table down the center and about ten chairs on either side of the table. This is the best way to float with a large group. You can rent a smaller taxi type boat if you’d like as well. As soon as we boarded, the ‘sales’ boats headed our way, looking to sell us jewelry, blankets and of course, food and drink.
We were able to make it out of the dock a bit before we decided on a food boat. They hitched right up to us and cooked quesadillas with squash blossoms, mushrooms and huitlacoche and gave us side plates of rice and beans. After they unhitched, the michelada boat hitched on and we were each given huge cups full of beer with spicy, sticky syrup running down the side. This was the messiest drink I’ve ever tried to drink but it was worth it. The syrup was a chili, honey sauce that used to be served on straws, but Mexico City banned straws so now it runs down the side of the cup. We floated a bit more, gazing at the flower and plant nurseries lining the way and hooked up to an elote boat. Elote is a street food consisting of corn with mayo, lime, cheese and spices that can be eaten whole cob or, as most of us had it, in a cup. After the messy micheladas I didn’t think I could handle the cob mess. Note: you can bring your own food and drink on the boat if you want to save money. You can also bring your own speakers and jam out the whole way too. Or you can do what we did and buy every single thing along the way to get the full experience!
The canals are lined with chinampas, which start as rafts constructed of juniper branches. Crops are planted on top and as one sinks, another is built on top until a small island is formed. They’ve been around since the time of the Aztec Empire! We kept on floating, past the gardens and houses. We saw many a guard dog (even a husky on a roof!), egrets and little ducks. We floated past the main drag and had to take our boat over a ramp to get to the other side that leads to the Island of the Dolls. It took us about another 45 minutes of floating to get there and once we did, it was as creepy as I had anticipated.
We heard the story of the island from a man who claimed to be Don Julian Santana Barrera, the island’s owner’s nephew. Before leaving for Mexico City, I had researched this island and I thought it was a shrine to a little girl that had drowned there. The nephew told the story differently, indicating that the little girl who drowned was haunting his uncle. His uncle would find dolls washed up to the island and found that if he posted them around the island, the little girl’s ghost would leave him alone. He hung the dolls not out of tribute to the girl, but to save himself from her. I like this version of the story better for some reason. There were some newer dolls there as well. Tourists bring dolls to the island to be hung and left behind.
After taking a million pictures of dolls, we floated back into the main area (On the way back, we drank beers out of a bucket someone had left for us. They stock the boat and then charge you at the end for everything you eat and drink.) and found ourselves in the middle of Friday night happy hour. There were ten to twenty boats filled with high school and/or college kids, drinking and dancing and having a great time. The river was quite packed at this time, so we pulled over to eat more food – ordering from a restaurant that was along the way. Luckily, they came to us to take our order, so we didn’t have to get out of the boat. They brought carnitas tacos, mole enchiladas and mezcal with plates with rice, beans and nopales. We floated a bit more and got an espresso for $1 and at the same time, we got another boat driver. He hung out on our boat for a bit and then we realized why he was there – to sell us jewelry. Of course, Roxy and I could not resist, and I bought a bracelet for $20 (Sandra said I could’ve gotten it cheaper, but I was too eager pulling out my money.) and Roxy bought a bracelet, but she haggled a bit and got hers for less. Our final boat adventure was to hire a mariachi band who hooked their boat up to ours and sang us a few songs along the way into the dock where we settled up our tab for the day.
This adventure was part of the trip so I’m not sure how much anything cost, besides the bracelet and espresso. I think I overheard someone say renting the boat was $150 US for six hours of floating time, but don’t hold me to it. At the Island of the Dolls, they did charge Anthony 500 pesos (after trying to get 1000 pesos from him, Sandra talked them down to 500 or about $28 US) to bring his professional camera on the island, but the rest of us did not have to pay to take pictures. I would highly recommend this experience to someone visiting Mexico City and I think it’s worth it to go all the way out to the Island of the Dolls. You will most likely never see anything like it!