Notes from Mexico’s Doll Island

The tiny island is so popular that it is responsible for the spawning of at least eight other copycat doll islands

Besides holding the title of the scariest place in all of Mexico City, Isla del las Muñecas, which is Spanish for ‘Island of the Dolls’, is also excruciatingly difficult to get to. It is located 18 miles south of Mexico City in Xochimilco, a suburb famous for its floating, man-made islands of reed called chinampas that were built by the Aztecs.

The tiny island is so popular that it is responsible for the spawning of at least eight other copycat doll islands. Fakes, that cunning trajinera boat captains are only too happy to convince you into visiting.

Luckily for me, I have a local Mexican friend along who manages to find a captain ready to take us to the real island, which is a good two hours away from Embarcadero Cuemanco, one of the nine boat landings dotted along the canals of Xochimilco.

Floral tributes

In the indigenous Náhuatl language, the word ‘xochimilco’ simply means ‘place where flowers grow’ and that’s exactly why, in the early 1950s after a bad case of heartbreak, Don Julián Santana Barrera moved here and started growing flowers on an abandoned chinampa.

Every day he’d take a trajinera loaded with his marigolds or cempasuchitl (flower of the dead), as they are known as in Mexico, to sell at the Mercado de Xochimilco. It was while returning home from one such sale that he encountered a little girl who was drowning in the canal next to his island. His inability to save her would haunt him for months to come. And so, to appease her spirit that he believed was tormenting him, he set up a small shrine with an almost life size doll he named Agustinita placed on an altar. This would be the only doll Don Julián would ever name among the thousands of dolls in all shapes and sizes — some decapitated, some missing limbs — that he’d collect over the years.

It is said that some dolls would mysteriously float up to his island, others he would barter for his flowers. In lieu of an entry fee, people visiting him on the island would also bring with them old dolls that he’d happily add to his creepy collection.

Whispering winds

Today, besides the bizarre garlands of dolls that can be found festooned from almost every gnarly tree’s branches, the island is also home to a small ramshackle museum run by the caretaker, Anastasio Santana Velasco, who claims to be Don Julián’s nephew.

Pasted on its flimsy corrugated metal walls are copies of articles from local newspapers about the island along with a portrait of its toothless creator. The rest of the rooms, including Don Julián’s bedroom, are filled with his precious dolls, which Anastasio claims often whisper to him as he passes by.

Supremely creeped out, we walk towards the trajinera that we pray will still be there to ferry us back. As a parting shot, Anastasio tells us that exactly 20 years ago, on April 7, 2001, Don Julián’s dead body was found floating in the exact same spot where he had seen the little girl drown.

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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