As a neophyte to Mexican culture, I had no idea what mariachi bands were. Sure, we all hear Mexican music every now and then. But I was quite clueless. Friends who found out we were off to Xochimilco told us to make sure we get serenaded by mariachis.
The Aztec canals and floating islands of Xochimilco are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Centro Historico of Mexico City. Xochimilco, one of the delgaciones of D.F. (pronounced de efe) or the Distrito Federal is about 1 hour and 30 minutes from the Centro Historico via the Metro and the connecting Tren Ligero. Stepping out of the Tren Ligero station in Xochimilco, we were met by really helpful local guides outside and at every street corner who pointed us towards the embarcaderos, the docks where the trajineras are located.
Trajineras are small non-motorized boats that were used to transport goods along the canals of Xochimilco. Today, these boats no longer serve that purpose and are instead used to take tourists for leisurely rides along the canals. In the olden days, these boats used to be decorated with flowers and juniper branches. But those have long been replaced by arches painted with really colorful designs. Each arch has a name on it, usually the name of the boat or a significant someone.
The highlight of any visit to Xochimilco are the trajinera rides through its historic Aztec canals. Nothing much to see as we walked to the embarcaderos. So I was anxious to find out what this was all about.
We finally made it to Embarcadero Belem, one of the nine trajinera docks in Xochimilco. They had fixed rates per person and we opted to take the 45 minute ride since it was already late in the afternoon and we simply wanted to experience these famed rides, even just for a while.
Of course, my first question to our trajinero (I would think that's what they call the trajinera drivers) was "Where are the mariachis?" He pointed towards the direction we were going to and said they were further ahead. Like a gondolier, our trajinero weaved through the ancient canals built by the Aztecs. But he didn't sing though. That was the job of the mariachis.
As we entered one of the main canals, we saw even more of these colorful local boats. And there in one of the boats was a mariachi band dressed in suits and tuxedos. Ah! They were the vital element that added charm to an otherwise uneventful experience. As we got nearer, I felt the festive atmosphere these bands created. Indeed, I was in Mexico!
Their boats would dock with another boat filled with picnickers and they'd render some classical Mexican songs for a tip of course. But bystanders like us got showered with graces as we passed by boat after boat of these musical ensembles. Many locals would rent these trajineras for hours to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon with food and drinks in tow. If you don't have food and you suddenly get hungry, floating stores and hawkers are all over the place.
By the time we knew it, our time was up and we made our way back to the embarcadero. After enjoying a home-cooked meal at one of the residences which dished up some food for visitors (now that's tourism helping the local community), we made our way back to Mexico City. Then it hit me, our Mexican adventure was about to go full steam ahead.
How to get to Xochimilco
Xochimilco is conveniently connected to Mexico City's Metro. Take the Metro to Tasquena (MX$3) and transfer to the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco (MX$3).