Island of the Dolls

A man standing in front of a tree
La Isla de las Muñecas (“Island of the Dolls”) – is an area on the bank on the canals where dolls swing eerily from the trees.

The Island of the Dolls, located in the channels of Xochimilco, south of the center of Mexico City, very close to the Estadio Azteca football stadium, is a chinampa of the Laguna de Teshuilo and one of the main attractions of the channels.

There are hundreds of dolls there today, many of which have severed limbs or are decapitated or mutilated in some way. The effect of these lifeless figures swaying in the breeze is understandably macabre, and unsettling stories are plentiful.

Broken and deteriorated dolls of various styles and colors are found throughout the island, originally placed by the former owner of the island, Julián Santana Barrera. Julián believed that dolls helped to chase away the spirit of a girl drowned years ago.

The Island of the Dolls, originally owned by Don Julián Santana, is full of dolls hanging from trees and buildings covered with cobwebs and insects. The place was named during the 1950s when the owner began to hang them as protection against evil spirits. Santana was a neighbor of the Barrio de la Asunción, where he used to go to drink pulque after having sold his vegetables, until, due to superstitions, he began to preach the Bible, being expelled from the sector.

Myths abound about this island. According to legend, a young woman drowned entangled among the lilies of the canal and her body was found on the banks of the Santampa chinampas. Don Julián began to experience inexplicable situations so, terrified, he placed dolls that he found in the garbage or in the canals of Cuemanco with the idea that they would scare the soul of the young woman.

He also found a doll floating nearby and, assuming it belonged to the deceased girl, hung it from a tree as a sign of respect. After this, he began to hear whispers, footsteps, and anguished wails in the darkness even though his hut—hidden deep inside the woods of Xochimilco—was miles away from civilization. Driven by fear, he spent the next fifty years hanging more and more dolls, some missing body parts, all over the island in an attempt to appease what he believed to be the drowned girl’s spirit.

In 1987, an eco-tourist rescue was made and the island was found covered with water lily. Since then and after the death of Don Julián, the chinampa became a place of great tourist affluence.

The place gained fame after 1943, when Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernández filmed María Candelaria there, with Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz as protagonists.

After Barrera’s death in 2001—his body reportedly found in the exact spot where he found the girl’s body fifty years before—the area became a popular tourist attraction where visitors bring more dolls. The locals describe it as “charmed”—not haunted—even though travelers claim the dolls whisper to them.

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