Xochimilco and the Axolotl

The word “Xochimilco” is Nahuatl for “where the flowers grow”. It is an area of lakes and canals that was a major agricultural centre in Mesoamerica and remains as the only reminder of traditional Pre-Hispanic land-use in the waterways of the Mexico City basin.

The Aztec glyph (or toponym) for Xochimilco
Image source: Codex Mendoza, folio 6 recto,

This compound glyph for the place name Xochimilco features two colourful, detailed flowers [xochi(tl)], and a rectangular, segmented, textured parcel of land [mil(li)]. The locative suffix -co is not visible.

The glyph as it is currently presented

The Xochimilcas were one of seven Nahua tribes that migrated into the Valley of Mexico, along with the Acolhua, Chalca, Mexica, Tepaneca, Tlahuica and Tlaxcaltecans, from the mythical land of Aztlan (or the seven caves of Chicomoztoc, there is more than one origin myth).

One of the first conquests of Itzcoatl of the Mexica during his reign as tlatoani was that of Xochimilco, thus securing a major food supply for the fledgling Aztec empire (1).

  1. for further information on Itzcoatl see Post Quelites : Quilitl

In the modern era, areas of Xochimilco are still densely populated and it has become a major tourist area and a favourite weekend escape for residents of El D.F.(1)

  1. El D.F. (el dee- effay) The Distrito Federal of Mexico City. City residents are known as defeños (or the more derogatory term “chilangos”) 

Xochimilco is unique in its method of agriculture.

The land that the Mexica settled on was essentially a swampy lake bed that was prone to frequent flooding from the salty waters from surrounding lakes and as such was unsuitable for agriculture in general. This problem was solved by the creation of the chinampa system around the Xochimilco lakes to the south of current day Mexico City.

This was backed up by a miraculous feat of architectural engineering with the creation of a 16km dyke designed by Nezahualcoyotl (1) which separated the fresh and salty lakes in the Valley of Mexico.  Chinampas are commonly called “floating gardens” but the gardens themselves did not float. A series of canals were dug and the removed soil was piled up into cane baskets called “chinamitl” (2) to create islands.

  1. Nezahualcoyotl (Fasting Coyote, 1402-1472) was the tlatoani (ruler) of Texcoco and was revered as a warrior sage and poet-king
  2. chinamitl “square of cane”
The layout of chinapma construction

Trees (1) were then planted around the edges of these islands to stabilise them and prevent their erosion. This created a system of very fertile gardens that, due to the constant Spring-like weather conditions of the Valley of Mexico, can be continuously cropped. This is quite unique.

  1. the Ahuejote (Salix bonplandiana) in particular.

The map below shows how the Valley of Mexico likely looked when still covered in lakes. The dots represent the location of Tenochtitlan (now the Distrito Federal) and the star shows the location of Xochimilco.

The inset map shows the current location of the Mexico City Metro routes. The blue areas on the map (lake) are almost completely filled in and covered with the behemoth that is Mexico City. Xochimilco has been engulfed by the growing city and is now one of its outer boroughs.

The Mexico City metro does not extend out as far as Xochimilco. You catch the Cuatro Caminos – Tasquena train on Linea 2 (the Blue Line) to the final stop at Tasquena and then catch the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco.

Flowers are grown in abundance in Xochimilco and an area has been set aside to demonstrate the traditional gardening of chinampas and the pre-Hispanic crops of the Aztecs.

In 1987 UNESCO made the Xochimilco chinampas a U.N. World Heritage Site. The Xochimilco area covers an area of ​​89.65 square kilometres where about 83 historical monuments and 7 historic sites are grouped and includes the historically relevant areas of Xochimilco, Tláhuac and Milpa Alta

A portion of the chinampa system as seen from Google Earth.
The Xochimilco train station is in the bottom left corner.

Several years ago the Xochimilco area was under intense pressure from urban encroachment and pollution from herbicides, pesticides, sewage and urban runoff which threatened the extinction of the axolotl, an aquatic animal which is native to this area.

The degradation of this area has since been turned around by dedicated Mexicanos (including a dwindling number of fishermen who work the canals) (1) and as of 2017 the area around Cuemanco is now supplying organically grown produce to grocery stores, co-ops and some high end restaurants. (2)

  1. https://phys.org/news/2017-08-mexico-city-fishermen-aztec-gardens.html  
  2. https://gardenculturemagazine.com/techno-gardens/hydroponics/chinampas-urban-farming-returns-mexico-city

Named after the Ancient Aztec god, Xolotl, the axolotl (or ajolote) is a larval form of a salamander. It is sometimes called the Mexican Walking Fish or Water Dog. This variety of axolotl is native to this area and is the only place they are found in the wild.

The water dog as seen through the eyes of Debbie Balboa
instagram: @debbiebalboa
twitter: @DebbieBalboa

The Aztecs ate a wide variety of foods produced by the lakes and canals they lived on and the axolotl, along with fish, turtles and waterbirds, was one of these foodstuffs. The axolotl has been used in traditional medicinal practices and due to its unique regenerative capabilities it is being researched for its ability to regenerate any damaged tissue, even brain cells and spinal tissue.

The ajolote (axolotl), Ambystoma mexicanum

Axolotls are generally consumed without the skin and viscera (guts).To remove the skin you can either throw the axolotls into the embers of a fire (this is often done while the creature is still alive) and then scraping off the charred skin or by making a small cut below the head and then pulling the skin towards the tail. This peeled off skin can then be used to prepare infusions or syrups which can be used to treat lung infections and complaints such as influenza and bronchitis. There are uncontrolled clinical observational accounts for its use in the treatment of tuberculosis.  Sometimes the skin is not removed and the axolotl is only washed with water which has lime (cal) in it (as is used to nixtamalise corn). The viscera and gills are then removed.

The meat of the axolotl is very delicate and only requires a short cooking time as it can have a tendency to fall apart. It can be simmered in broths or chile and can be fried in a pan or on the grill and can also be battered and deep fried. Traditionally (in the Xochimilco area) they were cooked in a dish called tlapiques. These were made from small fish, frogs, axolotls or tadpoles that were cooked together with nopales and vegetables, herbs and chiles that were cultivated on the chinampas. The dish was wrapped in totomoxtle (the outer husk of fresh corn) much like a tamal and cooked on the comal. They are not steamed like tamales.

Tlapiques (containing fish) on sale at a market in Morelos  
      (note the charred corn husks – these will add a unique flavour profile to the dish)

The tradition of cooking and eating the axolotl was nearly lost in the latter half of the 20th century. This was primarily due to the near extinction of the animal as a result of the chronic polluting of the waterways they inhabit. The animal was still sought after due to its believed medicinal properties. Its importance as a cultural icon and the renewed vigour with which its native habitat, the chinampas of Xochimilco (also a cultural icon), have been revivified has led to a resurgence of the axolotl into the psyche of México. 

One particular species of salamander similar to the axolotl and endemic to Lake Pátzcuaro (Ambystoma dumerilii, known locally as “achoque”) was the variety traditionally harvested to make cough syrup. The recipe is a closely guarded secret and which the Dominican nuns of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud (the Sisters of Immaculate Health) are keeping alive. Their efforts have also increased the survival prospects of this animal as they have been working to breed and conserve this variety of water dog.

Ajolote en chile verde con quintoniles


  • 1 ajolote
  • ½ kg de tomate verde.
  • 15 chiles serranos.
  • ¼ de cebolla.
  • 3 cucharadas de manteca.
  • 2 dientes de ajo.
  • 1 rollo de quintoniles.
  • Sal al gusto


  1. Limpiar el ajolote.
  2. Hervir los chiles, el tomate, la cebolla y el ajo. Moler.
  3. Freír con un poco de manteca. Una vez que hierva agregar el ajolote en trozos y los quin-toniles. Sazonar.
  4. Servir cuando el ajolote esté cocido

And now in English

Axolotl in green chile with amaranth greens


  • 1 large axolotl.
  • ½ kg tomatillos
  • 15 serrano chiles.
  • ¼ medium onion.
  • 3 tablespoons of butter.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 bunch amaranth greens.
  • Salt to taste.


  1. Clean the axolotl.
  2. Simmer the chiles, tomatillos, onion and garlic in water until soft (about 10 minutes). Grind or blend into a chunky salsa
  3. Fry the salsa in a pan with a little butter. Once it has begun to boil add the portions of axolotl and the amaranth greens. Season to taste with salt.
  4. Serve when the axolotl is cooked

This is truly an example of indigenous pre-Hispanic cookery (except for the butter).

Adapted from Catálogo de recursos gastronómicos de México : Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo : Cuadernos 17 : Gobierno Federal : Conaculta : ISSN 1665-4617

A recipe for (an axolotl free) tlapique (adapted from cocina & comparte)

Nopales Tlapique
Serves 2
• 1 chile de arbol
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 xoconostle fruits
• 2 nopal pads (about the size of your hand)
• 2 sprigs of epazote
• 3 dried corn husks (totomoxtle)
Soak the totomoxtle in hot water to soften them.
Remove the spines from the nopal and rinse with a little water. Chop into small cubes. Peel the xoconostle with a small knife, cut in half, remove the seeds with a spoon and cut into small pieces. Chop the chili and the epazote leaves finely.
Mix the cactus, xoconostle, chili and epazote with salt in a bowl.
Drain the totomoxtle, open them well and arrange them so that they overlap a little. Fill with the mixture of nopales and xoconostle. Wrap well. Grill over low heat, turning occasionally to cook evenly. The tlapique is ready when it stops draining liquid.
Serve as a starter or main course.


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