Mexico City, a thriving metropolis of 20 million, is built on and around the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.  Founded in 1325, this city was at its greatest a sophisticated and technologically-advanced city of 200,000 inhabitants nestled in the valley of Mexico and surrounded by a series of connected lakes. (3)

  The market district, Tlatelolco, was estimated by Spanish explorer Bernal Diaz del Castillo to be twice the size of Seville and bustling with over 60,000 shoppers and traders.  (4)  The produce and goods for this market and several others in the city came mostly from the intricate and efficiently irrigated gardens created by the Aztecs in the shallow lakes surrounding the city.  These gardens, called chinampas , were artificial island plots of 30 x 2.5-3 meters.  These “floating gardens”  produced 3 crops a year and grew at least a half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the 200,000 residents of Tenochtitlan. (Investigating Chinampa Farming) 

Farmers collecting mud from the bottom of a canal for fertilizer (Site)


Irrigated by the surrounding lake water, the chinampas were fertilized by digging up the nutrient-rich mud from the bottom of the canals and also by using human waste from the city itself.  In this way, Tenochtitlan was able to better fertilize its crops while treating its wastewater― creating a healthier living environment for all. (5)  Crops were easily transported to market along the many canals and lakes surrounding the chinampas.  When the spaniards arrived it did not take them long to dimantle the complex system and put in place traditional monocropping.  Today, some chinampas survive in the Xochimilo area close to Mexico City (5).  They are cared for in the traditional way and create both food and an opportunity for a healthy tourist industry (6).  Mexico city is currently trying to create a waste-water treatment system incorporating the use of chinampas similar to the ones used by the Aztecs so long ago (7).

Similar aqua-terra systems were found in traditional agriculture around the world such as Java, China, India, and many others (Urban Ag book, UN)


Chinampa at Xochimilo


Last three pictures from The Chinampas of Mexico: Sub-irrigation and Temperature Amelioration in Chinampa Agriculture, a Ph.D dissertation by Philip Lawerence Crossley, 1999.

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11 Responses to “Chinampas of Tenochtitlan”

  1. katie shields Says:

    i find this information really fascinating. i have to write an article summary on this and i cant stop reading it :)

  2. eva Says:

    this article is a great visual for my students who find the textbook account a bit “dry” –

  3. Noah Says:

    what was the area of Lake Texcoco

  4. Dennis Says:

    Heard of similar in Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka. It would be interesting to hear if the use of human excrement as fertilizer created health hazards because of contamination of the harvested foods.

  5. BobPixel Says:

    Terrible news that now the people of Mexico City are getting their taps turned off. They live in a city that was once a lake, yet their access to fresh water is diminishing. Add in the susceptibility to earthquakes and you have to wonder if the chinampas weren’t the optimum solution in the first place!

  6. Lauren Says:

    This information was very helpful! You mentioned the size of the “floating gardens”, but I was wondering if you knew the size of the canals of Tenochtitlan.


  7. Aprilkuan Says:

    interesting pictures of those chinampas

  8. we have a section of land in Dominican republic that we are planning to build the first Caribbean chinampas the area about 300×150 feet,I am going to the international community for comments ideas suggestions, we are presently translating the only 80 page text ive found from spanish to english to be available on line as ebook on chinampas

  9. Cecile Says:

    I’d heard in an Anthro class the trees around Xochimilco were identical to trees found in India. I’d love to learn more about if the chinampa technique was used in India and what kind of trees they were.

  10. Hilda N. Says:

    I am working on a research paper that has to do with chinampas as an adaptive technology in Mesoamerica. Do you know of any articles that describe the tools used to construct chinampas? Or any other articles detailing the construction of chinampas?
    thank you,

  11. anthromes Says:

    Here is a link to more photos and info on the suject:

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