Paddling through ancient farmlands in Mexico

Mexico

By Samantha Magick

On the canals of Xochimilco, Mexico, it can feel like the most picturesque things are the most damaging. For example, the vibrantly painted trajineras party boats? They’re polluting the delicate waterlands, say local scientists. The green channels that have you padding through what appears to be a landmass? That’s lenteja de agua (water lentils) and lirio acuatico (water lily); invasive species which by carpeting the water surface, block sun and oxygen from reaching the plants and creatures living underneath. 

But there is a way to enjoy this historic and biologically important area as visitors at a slower and more thoughtful pace.

More than 10% of Mexico’s biodiversity can be found in the wetlands, which sprawl over 6400 acres. The channels, which are pre-Hispanic constructions, run over 100 miles. The farms were built by the Aztecs from soil dredged from the canal beds. They are important to mitigate against flooding in Mexico City and produce some 55 tonnes of vegetables daily for the enormous city’s tables and kitchens.

Humedalia—a group of biologists and farmers working at Xochimilco’s wetlands—offer tours of the area. After boarding a canoe, you paddle through channels, your guides pointing out the flora and fauna. Even after years of running the tour, their excitement when they spot a rare bird is palpable. You eventually come to a chinamperos, a floating garden, where you disembark for a ramble and explore, listen to presentations by the biologists, plant seeds and sample produce.

A while into the presentation on Xochimilco’s natural and human history, I confess I was a bit distracted by the delicious smells emanating from the outdoor kitchen. The reward for our attention in our al fresco classroom was a delicious, simple meal of salads, tamales, tortillas, and traditional breads (cocoles) with herbal tea. All vegetarian, the meal really benefitted from that phenomenon where food tastes better in unpolluted fresh air-it was one of the best meals we had in Mexico (and we ate a wide variety of excellent food while we were there)!

After a couple of weeks soaking in the very urban attractions of Mexico City, its galleries, museums, music, markets, food, street life, shopping, city parks and historical sites, it was wonderful to be in nature again. Our guide Alejandra was knowledgeable, but also sensitive enough to know that some moments of absolute serenity, when all you could hear was the movement of your paddle through the water, was what we were seeking. We returned home thinking how wonderful it would be to open up more of Fiji’s farms in this way to visitors, and so very grateful for our time in Xochimilco.

This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.

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