A drowned girl, a hermit and a horrifying collection of moldering toys set the scene for Mexico’s City’s most macabre attraction
Travellers hungry for bizarre thrills won’t find anywhere weirder than Mexico City.
From the witchcraft market where you can barter for the ingredients of a love spell – to lucha libre wrestling, crypts of rotting mummies, and public shrines honouring a skull-faced deity beloved by criminals and drug dealers – Mexico City is a dream for alternative travel.
But even if you’re used to taking the path less travelled, don’t lose your nerve if it leads you to Mexico’s gruesome gallery of terror tots.
The Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls) is found in Xochimilco, a sprawling rural neighbourhood on the southeast fringes of Mexico City.
Xochimilco is criss-crossed by an intricate network of manmade canals and chinampas (floating gardens) created by the ancient Aztecs. It’s all that’s left of the Valley of Mexico that predates today’s modern metropolis.
Mexicans and foreign tourists flock to Xochimilco to take colourful, gondola-like boats or trajineras around the peaceful canals. There you can spot interesting wildlife, sup a spicy michelada and take a break from the bustle of city life.
But if you’re made of sterner stuff, the Isla de las Muñecas is a surreal manifestation of one man’s obsession with death.
The doll master
The origin of the Isla de las Muñecas is shrouded in hearsay, but it’s widely acknowledged that it was founded by Julián Santana Barrera from the nearby La Asunción neighborhood.
Although he was well liked, Santana Barrera was a loner. He was rarely seen in Xochimilco, and spent most of his time fishing, exploring the canals and tending to crops on his chinampa.
He also built a hut on the remote island to escape humanity.
According to local legend, Santana Barrera discovered a dead girl floating in the canals, who’d died in mysterious circumstances.
Nearby, Santana Barrera also found a doll that he assumed belonged to the dead child. As a sign of respect, he plucked the doll from the canal and hung it from a tree on his island.
After reporting the death to police, Santana Barrera claimed he was visited by spirits of the dead. At night he heard footsteps pacing around his hut, and strange whispers and screams on the wind.
The only thing that silenced the supernatural voices was hanging more dolls on the trees surrounding his hut. Santana Barrera spent the next 50 years fishing lost dolls from the canals and suspending them from trees around his remote homestead.
Santana Barrera died in 2001. Unconfirmed reports claim that his body was found floating in the same spot where he’d discovered the drowned girl half a century earlier.
But the death of its creator wasn’t the end for the Isla de las Muñecas.
Locals and tourists continued to visit the island, and brought more dolls to swell Santana Barrera’s collection of macabre moppets.
Although research shows that over 80% of Mexicans identify as Catholic and are more superstitious than people in other Latin America countries, locals aren’t nervous of the Isla de las Muñecas.
Nobody in the rural community thinks Santana Barrera’s ghoulish sanctuary is evil or haunted, and neighbours all pitch in to help to keep his work alive.
They regard the island as “charmed”, and a place where the worlds of the living and dead intersect.
The moment I arrived on the Isla de las Muñecas, I wanted to turn on my heel and flee.
As my trajinera pulled alongside the island – and I saw the first disembodied heads staring blankly from trees bordering the island – I heard the unmistakable, nerve-shredding sound of a petrol engine roaring into life.
Having spent my college days gorging on hardcore horrors such as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I had visions of Leatherface lumbering towards me, swinging a deadly power tool above his head.
Thankfully, it turned out the ‘chainsaw’ was a grass strimmer, and that a neighbour was taking advantage of the fine weather to mow the lawn.
But the damage was done. My nerves were jangled, making my visit to the island more unnerving.
Unlike the beautifully maintained scarecrow villagers at Nagoro in Japan, all the dolls on the Isla de las Muñecas are unloved, neglected and forgotten, and spent months floating in the canals of Xochimilco before they were fished to safety.
Most dolls are stripped naked or wear tattered clothes. Almost all are missing limbs. Some have eyes that have been flipped backwards, or even pushed back inside their heads.
The plastic ‘skin’ of some dolls has blackened and blistered in Xochimilco’s fierce sunlight, making them look like victims of a cruel wasting disease.
Insects and animals have also made their homes in exposed necks, eyes and stumps. It’s hard not to recoil when you come across a doll swaddled in webs, which looks like a human baby cocooned by a monster spider.
But despite the overwhelming creepiness of the Isla de las Muñecas, it’s one of Mexico’s most compelling attractions.
As the journey is long and uncomfortable, there’s a great sense of achievement when you finally set foot on the island.
The dolls are also amazing to see first-hand, and it’s intriguing how nature has taken control and transformed cute toys into the stuff of nightmares.
But what’s most remarkable about the Isla de las Muñecas is that it gives you a glimpse into the tormented mind of its creator.
Visitors can see how Santana Barrera processed the trauma he experienced after finding the drowned girl. Exploring the tiny island, you can feel the grief that shaped his creation.
The Isla de las Muñecas is like nowhere else on earth. This notorious horror show will continue to chill visitors for generations to come, and I hope I have the opportunity to see it again one day.
If you dare, check out the full Island of the Dolls photo gallery.