About the Isla de las Muñecas
About one-hour South of Mexico City, on Teshuilo Lake in the Xochimilco canals there Is an island known as Isla de las Muñecas which in English translates to Doll’s island. This is not an ordinary island. In the beginning, it was not a place for tourists, as it has a tragic history.
The island is dedicated to the lost soul of a poor girl who met her fate too soon and to the man responsible for hanging all of the dolls, Don Julian Santana Barrera.
Arriving on the gondola through the canal is quite beautiful and peaceful. As you approach Isla de las Muñecas it becomes very eerie as you can see the dolls hanging on the tree’s and you get a strange feeling of being watched.
This small island is home to over 1500 terrifying dolls. Their severed limbs, decapitated heads, and blank eyes adorn trees in every direction you look.
History of the Isla de las Muñecas
Legend states over 50 years ago Julian was the caretaker of the island. One day he left his wife and child to live out his years as a recluse. While on the island, he found the body of a young girl floating dead, face down in the water.
According to some, a young girl actually drowned in the lake, while most others, including his relatives, say Julian merely imagined the drowned girl. Regardless, Julian devoted his life to honouring this lost soul in a unique, fascinating, and for some an unnerving way.
Soon after, Julian found a doll floating nearby in the same water. He picked up the doll and hung it on a tree as a way of showing respect and support for the spirit of the girl.
Where did the rest of the dolls come from?
It is told that Julian heard suspicious noises of voices in the darkness of night whilst trying to sleep, despite being in the solitude of the Xochimilco canals.
Obsessed with the girl’s spirit, Julian started hanging more dolls to appease her spirit. He soon realised the dolls themselves were possessed by the spirit of the dead girl, and continued to collect dolls hanging them over the entire island. According to those close to him, it was as if Julian was driven by some unseen force that completely changed him. Apparently he was very marked because he could not save the little girl’s life.
He collected dolls floating in the canals and looked for them in the rubbish heaps near his home. Legend states that he traded with locals, in exchange for their dolls. Once the dolls were obtained, he would hang them on the island’s trees regardless of the state of the doll. As word of the island spread, Julian began accepting a small fee to show visitors around his peculiar home.
Julian lived in a small cabin, where his photo and a few possessions were still on display, surrounded by trees and some 1500 decaying dolls. A number of dolls were also kept in his cabin.
Local legends and our personal experience
Ghost stories are a part of local lore in the region, which gave way to spooky tales of the dolls coming alive at night, apparently consumed by the dead girl’s spirit. Local legend says that the dolls move their heads and arms and even open their eyes.
Some witnesses claim they had heard the dolls whispering to each other, while others who were on a boat near the island said the dolls lured them to come down to the island. It is even said some boat owners will not go there for fear and superstition.
Luckily or not Jake and I did not witness any such behaviours from the dolls. Unless you count the spiders crawling out from hidden places that made my skin crawl.
Our drone mysteriously crashed on the other side of a small channel after being in the air for only 1 minute. Jake tried to get the drone back in the air, but it crashed down once more. We have previously experienced minor issues with our drone, but never to the extent of having it crash without a single error message. I must conclude it was the spirit of the girl or possibly even Julian bringing it down to not disturb any of his dolls.
Where is Don Julian Santana Barrera now?
In a dark twist, in 2001, Julian’s nephew found him dead in a canal. It was in the same spot where Julian had decades earlier discovered the corpse of the girl that inspired this island. According to some reports, he died of a heart attack. The more common claim, however, is that he somehow drowned in the same area where he believed the little girl had died.
Many people on the island believe Julian has joined the other spirits of the island.
The locals are very faithful that the Isla de las Muñecas is a charmed place. After Julian’s death, it has become a tourist attraction, where visitors bring more dolls to add to the vast collection. Jake and I left our contribution on the island.
Although the action of Julian was innocent and even admirable, it ended up being portrayed as a real nightmarish destination.
Jake and I arrived on the island while it was still light but as the sun quickly vanished and it turned the experience into something completely different.
After I urged Jake to leave, we jumped back on the Gondola and spent a very dark, quiet ride back to the pier. Hoping the spirits stayed on the island and I had no spiders hidden in my dress.
How to get to the island
Jake and I caught an Uber from our hotel in Mexico City to Embarcadero Cuemanco Xochimilco (pier). The Uber takes just under 1 hour.
At the pier, there are rows and rows on Gondolas waiting to take you on a trip through the canals.
They have several trip options to choose from, the one to the Island of the dolls takes approximately 3-4 hours for a return trip, also stopping at a few sites on the way.
Most of the boat operators speak little English, but there was a young American man who helped us with the translation, as our Spanish was quite poor.
At the pier, there is also a long row of markets. Here you can purchase food & drinks to take with you on the boat. There are some clothing markets as well.
There is also no ATM at the pier. We recommend bringing some cash with you, although some places will accept cards with a 15% fee.
Once arriving at the island, there is also a fee if you would like to take photos on the island.
As we visited the island during corona times, there were only a few other boats out. We have been told that during high season, it is very busy with most of the boats out in the canals.
If you are visiting Mexico, we would highly recommend a trip to the Isla de las Muñecas. Get a big group together and have a few drinks while enjoying the beautiful canal.