Story by Bob Schulman. Photos courtesy of Xochimilco Cancun.
Imagine a fabulous city built on an island in the middle of a lake, and edging the island a maze of floating gardens separated by canals. The city was the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and the gardens provided the local folks with fruits and vegetables – until the early 1500s, when the island was invaded by Spanish conquistadores. The area of the gardens and canals was called Xochimilco (pronounced sho-she-mill-ko).
The gardens were created in sections by first anchoring big frames made of cane on the lake floor, then filling them in with alternating layers of tree trunks, mud, roots and soil until the section stood about three feet above the lake. After that, different fruits and veggies were planted in the raised sections.
Fast-forward 500 years, and the lake is filled in, Mexico City stands on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, and brightly painted gondola-like barges glide along the old canals of Xochimilco. Steered by workers with long poles, the barges – called trajineras – are often packed with Mexican families who've rented them (and maybe a second barge filled with a Mariachi band) for picnics. They've long been a big hit with tourists, too.
Now you can enjoy another version of Xochimilco 1,000 or so miles east of Mexico City on the Yucatan Peninsula. You'll find it a few miles away from Cancun International Airport, the busy terminal serving Cancun and the Riviera Maya on the powdery beaches of the Mexican Caribbean.
Called “Xochimilco Cancun”, the waterpark features nearly five miles of canals winding through 140 acres of the Yucatan jungle. Workers pole the park's 40 flat-bottomed trajineras from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. A Cancun spokeswoman said the second Xochimilco (a project of Experiencias Xcaret) “offers tourists a fun and unique way to hang out with friends and family, enjoy delicious local food and listen to live mariachi music for an authentic Mexican fiesta on the water.”
Like the trajineras in the Mexico City canals, the ones in Xochimilco Cancun are colorfully decorated (except the ones here are named for Mexican states vs. the names of women on the Mexico City barges). The barges each seat up to 20 passengers.
Among items on the dinner menu are the likes of huitlacoche corn, squash blossoms, Mayan pumpkin seeds, tamales, Oaxaca cheese balls, pork in green salsa, chicken mole, steamed fish, milk caramel, Oaxaca milled chocolate and (of course) flan.
Xochimilco Cancun is just five minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from hotels around Puerto Morelos, 20 minutes from the Cancun hotel zone and 35 minutes from Playa del Carmen.
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