City of "Lost" Islands

Original Topography of the Valley of Mexico Centered on Lakes

One of our ongoing endeavors is to understand better what relationships there are between the topography of the current Mexico City, vastly expanded from its original small area now called el Centro, not only to that of the original Mexica city of Tenochtitlán it replaced, but also to the hundreds of other pueblos (villages) in the Valley of Mexico that are now urban neighborhoods visually indistinguishable from the rest of the metropolis. 

The Valley of Mexico was originally nearly filled by a chain of five lakes (covering some 580 sq. miles). Lake Texcoco was the largest, most central of five lakes and lowest, thus receiving water from the other four. Because of the surrounding mountains, there was no outlet to the sea, making the valley what is called an endorheic basin, so Lake Texcoco's waters were salty, while the others were fresh. The original Mexico City and its predecessor, Tenochtitlán, were on an island in a large bay in the southwest corner of Lake Texcoco. The Peninsula of Iztapalapa (the Azteca/Mexica name) divided it from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco to the south. To the north of Texcoco were Lakes Xaltocan and Zumpango.

The Valley of Mexico, about 1519,
at the Time of the Arrival of the Spanish.

The lakes have been almost totally erased over the centuries since the Spanish undertook draining them to prevent the annual flooding of Mexico City during the summer rainy season.

Lake Chalco,
part of a once larger original and the only remaining open lake in the Valley.
It lies in Delegación Tláhuac, in the southeastern part of the city,
 and in the adjoining State of Mexico, to the east.

Parts of Lake Texcoco remain as man-modified, geometrically shaped water-storage areas
in the northeast part of the city.

The exposed land was granted to Spaniards to be made into haciendas, large estates for farming and cattle-raising. Amazingly, the original Mexico City only began growing from its original island base in the latter part of the 19th century, and it was only in the last half of the 20th century that the Valley was explosively filled with its current urban sprawl that consists of the City and its Greater Metropolitan Area, inhabited by 21 million people. (See our page: How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a Metropolis).

Outline of Mexico City and its 16 delegaciones/alcaldías (boroughs)
overlaid on original topography of the Valley.

The taupe area is that of the former lakes and surrounding, low-lying land.
The area of the Valley not occupied by Mexico City
is part of the State of Mexico.

(The volcanic mountains surrounding the Valley are presented in our post:
Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes: Giants on All Sides)

Island Cities and Villages of Lake Texcoco

In addition to the many altepetls (city-states) and villages that occupied the land around the lakes, there were also many islands occupied by villages and even powerful altepetls, city-states. When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish troops arrived 500 years ago, in November 1519, the most powerful of these was the Mexica altepetl (city-state) of Tenochtitlán. The altepetls of Xochimilco (now the center of Delegación Xochimilco) and Chitláhuac (now the center of Delegación Tláhuac) were also on islands in the Lake Xochimilco-Chalco complex.

Our first topographical discovery was that Tenochtitlán was not originally just one island, but actually, five islands cobbled together via pilings and landfill by the Mexica over two hundred years. However, Tenochtitlán was never one solid piece of land. Much of it, if not the majority, was composed of chinampas, small, man-made islands, separated from one another by narrow canals.  Many chinampas were used for growing vegetables and fruits to feed the city residents.

Soil and ecological characteristics of the Island of Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco
Original islands - yellow
 (Tenochtitlán was originally founded in 1325 on the central island.
Tlatelolco, the northern-most island, was originally a separate Mexica
altepetl, taken over by the Mexica of Tenochtitlán in the mid 15th century.
Landfill - light orange
Chinampas -dark orange
Red - marshland

Características edáficas y ecológicas presentes en la isla de Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco.
San Pablo Teopan: Survival and Metamorphosis of an Indigenous Quarter of Mexico City
During the Viceroy Period

Tenochtitlán, including its central island,
was crossed by many larger canals.

The blue lines mark major canals entering from the south.
Wavy pathways were other canals.
Straight paths were avenues on solid land.
The red line marks the roadway from the political-religious center
(now the Zócalo plaza) 
leading south to the causeway running scross Lake Texcoco,
now la Calzada de Tlalpan highway,
to Coyoacán and Iztapalapa.

From: The Excluded Territory: History and Cultural Patrimony 
of the Colonias North of the River of Piety
(in Delegación Cuauhtémac)
by María Eugenia Herrera, Editor © Palabra de Clío, Aug. 2015

Island villages of Lake Texcoco

Tenochtitlán was, however, only one of a series of islands that ran south to north, up the bay on the lake's southwest side, from the end of the Iztapalapa Peninsula.

Altepetls and other villages
 around the southwest bay of Lake Texcoco
and on its many islands.
At the height of the Mexica/Azteca rule
 in the late 15th century.

All those from Azcapotzalco, Atepehuacan,
Tepeyácac and Atzacoalco, in the northsouthward
are now within the northern part of Mexico City.

After the Mexica had, as subjects of Azcapotzalco, on the west shore of Lake Texcoco, helped it conquer the dominant altepetl on the east side of the lake, Culhuacan, on the Iztapalapa peninsula, in 1428, they overthrew Azcapotzalco, itself. They quickly moved on to take control of the entire Valley, and then many other altepetls beyond the mountains. They then built a series of cuepotli (calzadas), causeways, lines radiating from the city on the map above), using some of these islands as stepping stones, to connect their city to the mainland they now controlled.

To the east of the islands, across the opening of the bay, the Mexicas also built a dike (line along the right side of the map above) —  with its northern end at Atzacoalco and southern end at the altepetl of Iztapalapa — to keep fresh the waters flowing into Lake Texcoco from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco separate from the briny (salty) water in Texcoco, which was the result of the lake system having no outlet.

Intrigued by what we discovered about the island underpinnings of Tenochtitlán, we began searching out in the city other original pueblos that had also been islands. This has led us, so far, on ambles to the following "lost island" villages, all but one south of Tenochtitlán. (The links take you to our posts about the ones we have visited):

Present locations of the
island villages that were in Lake Texcoco south of Tenochtitlan.

The black line is the Royal Canal,
familiarly called la Viga (the Beam).
It was created when Lake Texcoco was drained
to provide a route for water transport of fruits and vegetables
 from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco to the Center of the City.
It was used until the 1920s, when motorized transport replaced it.
From North to South, the pueblos that were originally islands are:
  • Tultengo  (red/yellow star) was at the southeast end of Tenochtitlán, "officially" part of the city, but connected to it only by canals that surrounded chinampas. It is now the colonias of Vista Alegre and Paulino Navarro, in Delegación/Alcadía Cuhautémoc.

South of Tenochtitlán, east of the Viga Canal:

  • Mixhuac(green/green star), southeast of Tultengooriginally Mixhuacan or Mixiucuan, now Santa María Magdalena Mixhuac, in Delegación/Alcadía Venustiano Carranza.
  • Zacatlamanco, (purple/green star) to southeast of Mixhuac, now Santa Anita Zacatlamanco, in Delegación/Alcadía Iztacalco.
  • Iztacalco, (yellow/red star)south of Zacatlamanco; now a group of barrios in Delegación/Alcadía Iztacalco.
  • Atlazolpa (purple/orange star) southeast of Iztacalco, now Pueblo Magdalena Atlazolpa, in Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa.
  • Nextipac (green/yellow star), Nextipan on the map of the islands; now San Juanico Nextipac, in Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa.
  • Tetepilco (blue/purple star) Teteopilco on the map of the islands, now San Andrés Tetepilco, in Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa.

South of Tenochtitlan, west of theViga Canal: 

  • Aztacalco, now known as "La Romita", in Colonia La Roma Norte, southwest of Tenochtitlán (Centro), not shown on the map, but halfway between Tenochtitlán and Chapultepec on the west shore; now in Delegación/Alcadía Cuhautémoc
  • Tepetlatzinco, (yellow/blue star) now la Colonia Niños Héroes, in Delegación/Alcadía Benito Juárez
  • Ticomán, in Delegación/Alcadía Benito Juárez
  • Huitzlopochoco, (yellow/purple star) now Churubusco, divided into two barrios: San Diego to the north, and San Mateo, to the south. 

To the southeast the islands are the main pueblos that were on the east end of the Iztapalapa Peninsula:

  • Mexicaltzingo, (mustard/yellow star), on the Viga Canal, was at Peninsula's western point, or possibly, an island just offshore. Now in Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa.
  • Iztapalapa, (red/orange star), east of Mexicaltzingo, was another altepetl, built by the Mexica at the south end of the dike they constructed in the 1430s. It is now the official ayuntamiento, "city hall" of Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa.
  • Culhuacán, (blue star, red area at bottom of the map) is the oldest altepetl on the Peninsula. It is now Pueblo Culhuacán, with eight surrounding barrios. The pueblo center and four of the barrios are in Delegación/Alcadía Iztapalapa. The other four barrios are west of La Viga Canal (here called the National Canal) in Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán, in Delegación/Alcaldá Coyoacán.

North of Tenochtitlán: 

  •  Atepehuacanthe island farthest north of Tenochtitlán (not on this map) is now San Bartólo Atepehuacan.

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