The Island of the Dolls (“La Isla de las Muñecas" in Spanish), is located off the famous canals of Xochimilco (pronounced “zo-chi-meel-ko”) in the southern part of Mexico City, where motorless human-powered boats known as trajineras, brightly painted and often named, are propelled via pole down the canals. Touristy but deservedly so.
This small island is adorned with thousands of old, tattered dolls hanging from trees and scattered across the landscape. The dolls on the island vary in size, age and condition. Some are missing limbs, while others have decaying features, contributing to the eerie atmosphere.
The story behind the Island of the Dolls is shrouded in tragedy … real or imagined. Legend has it that in 1950 the island's caretaker, Don Julian Santana Barrera, discovered the lifeless body of a drowned girl in the canals surrounding the island. The next day, he found a doll drifting down the canal. Believing it belonged to the girl, he hung the doll from a tree in her memory and as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Tormented by the incident and haunted by the spirit of the deceased girl, Don Julian began collecting discarded dolls to appease her restless soul. Over the years, he hung these dolls from trees and structures on the island, creating a surreal and unsettling environment.
Many visitors claim to have experienced a sense of unease and an otherworldly presence as they explore the island. Let’s face it, dolls are a bit creepy at the best of times, and even when they are shiny new and able-bodied. There’s even a phobia for that vibe. Pediophobia is a fear of dolls and is considered to be caused by the blank, yet lifelike stares on dolls’ faces.
In 2001, Barrera's nephew came to the island to help his uncle. As they fished in the canal, Barrera, then 80, sang passionately, claiming that mermaids in the water were calling for him. The nephew left briefly, and upon his return found Barrera dead from a heart attack, face down in the canal, in the same spot where the girl was said to have drowned.
After Barrera's death, his family opened the island to the public as a tourist attraction. It continues to draw curious visitors from around the world.
In addition to the hundreds of dolls, the grounds host three huts, and a small museum with articles from local newspapers about both the island and Barrera. In the one-room hut Barrera slept in, the first doll he collected is displayed, as well as Agustinita, his favourite doll … and the only one on the island that is named.
Today there are about four thousand dolls on the island. Not surprisingly, there’s even a Guinness World Record for this doll-infested wonderland: “Largest Collection of Haunted Dolls”.
Story Idea: Tim Nicholas
1 & 2. The Island of the Dolls ~ “La Isla de las Muñecas". Photos: AP.
3. The Island of the Dolls is located off the famous canals of Xochimilco
4. The trajineras of Xochimilco
5. Entrance to The Island of the Dolls. Photo: Ken Schuster.
6. Don Julian Santana Barrera
7. Shrine to Don Julian. Photo: AP.
8. The white crucifix Don Julian set up to mark the spot where the girl allegedly drowned in 1950. Photo: AP.
9. Agustinita. Photo: AP.
10. Creepy baby doll head. Beware pediophobics.