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Isla de las Muñecas: The island of dolls

With October having arrived, fans of the horror genre will only have one thing on their minds: the 31st of the month, Halloween. For most of us, it’s a fun time where we can safely indulge ourselves in the darker side of life and the human imagination. For others who aren’t so keen, they can at least console themselves that All Hallows’ Eve is just for one night, and the witches and ghosts will have disappeared by November’s first morning.  

But, if you travel to Mexico City and head south to the channels of Xochimilco, you’ll find a small chinampa (floating garden) where, for some, the nightmares never end. This is the Isla de las Muñecasthe Island of Dolls.


Tucked into every crevice and bush, hung from every branch and roped onto every tree are dolls of various sizes, shapes and conditions. Mostly missing all the limbs they were manufactured with and severely deteriorated from years of outdoor exposure, the dolls, once as innocent-looking as the playthings they are, have taken on a much more sinister appearance in their grim, new residency. Described by some visitors as a “wonderland” of dirty and scary dolls, people’s imaginations tend to run wild as they catch brief glimpses of movement in the corners of their eyes; listening carefully, they say you can almost hear faint whispers coming from the plastic hordes… 

I’m sure the first question you’d like to ask is “Where did they all come from?”, and you can rest assured that they didn’t all walk there by themselves. In the 1950’s, the island was originally under the ownership of a man named Don Julian Santana, a farmer who grew vegetables on the chinampa. There exists a legend that a young girl was caught in the thick lilies that lay under the surface of the island’s waters, drowning as a result. Santana, a superstitious man, began to experience frequent and inexplicable phenomena on the island. He came to the conclusion that the island was being haunted by the spirits of the drowned girl; finding a doll that he assumed was her possession, he hung it from a tree as a mark of respect. 

Strolling around the island, he would hear whispers and wild wailing in the night, not to mention mysterious footsteps around his hut, hidden in the nearby woods of Xochimilco. Incensed with fear, he continued to hang dolls he found in the canals of Cuemanco, no matter their state or condition, for the next 50 years. Santana hoped that these would also help to satisfy the girl’s wandering soul. But, as his collection grew, Santana’s paranormal experiences did not go away. 

When he died in 2001, legend has it that his body was found floating in the same place where the young girl was found all those years previous. Visitors to the island have made sure that Santana’s work is still carried on in his absence, with tourists welcome to add their own dolls to hang there. By and large, the locals have taken well to the dark legend of the island, with many insisting that it is, in fact, ‘blessed’ rather than cursed. Despite this, there are some boatmen who will refuse to take you there because of the superstitions, and the island can only be reached by the trajneras that frequent the canals. 

Cursed, blessed, or merely a fun legend? You’ll have to decide for yourself! (You can really test your sceptic credentials by taking part in a special nighttime tour, for those brave enough to try it). A quirky, spooky and surreal place with a story straight from a work of Poe, the Isla de las Muñecas is truly a great tourist spot for fans of the macabre travelling in Mexico. If you’re there during Halloween, the atmosphere is sure to be perfect for hearing the barely audible whispers of the dolls. If you don’t find anything out of the ordinary, stick around in the Mexico for two more days until the 2nd of November: the Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead); you’re sure to get your thrill’s-worth.