HomeTravelReal story behind ‘haunted’ Island of the Dolls in Mexico
Real story behind ‘haunted’ Island of the Dolls in Mexico
October 30, 2021
Deep in the heart of the canals of Xochimilco — Mexico City’s last vestige of the Aztecs — is one of the world’s most haunted and tragic locations: the Island of the Dolls.
Here, on this single acre, which houses three huts and a crowd of decaying dolls, locals swear they see ghosts and hear shadows talking. It is, they believe, cursed.
“During the time of Cortez many people fled here to Xochimilco and hid on the canals,” Gerardo Ibarra, co-founder of Ruta Origen, a sustainable travel company in Mexico, told The Post. “A lot of these people were women and children hiding from the conquistadores. And many women killed themselves rather than be caught and raped [by the Spanish].”
Remarkably, it’s within the city limits of one of the world’s biggest metropolises. Mexico City was originally an island in a volcanic caldera lake surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountains. The Aztec empire (1300 BC – 1521 BC) was the first to start developing the area, building a system of manmade islands, called chinampas, and a canal system for farmers to navigate them.
After the Aztecs were defeated in the Spanish Aztec war (1591- 1521), much of the chinampas were filled in and turned into the basis of the city we know today. Except for, that is, the most southern end of Mexico City, in Xochimilco, where the chinampas and canal system still exist – an integral part of local life and are a UNESCO world heritage site.
At times, the neighborhood was also used as shelter for Mexican revolutionaries and religious practitioners who may have fallen out of favor; some of them ended up killed or drowned in these canals.
Ibarra introduced me to Don Lauro, a community leader who has spent his entire life in Xochimilco, paddling through the small islands that are used for farming maize, squash and chiles.
Using a on a wooden, flat-bottomed chalupa, Lauro paddled to the infamous Island of the Dolls and recalled how, 50 years ago, the water was “so clear you could see to the bottom.”
And that’s how, in the 1950s, Julian Santana Barrera found the body of a young girl at the bottom of the waterway just outside his door.
“The girl was swimming with her sister or friends and the current took and she drowned,” said Rogelio Sanchez Santana, the current “guardian of the dolls” and a great nephew of Barrera.
According to him, it was after his uncle found the body that trouble started.
“The spirit of the girl was living in sorrow,” Santana said. “In the mornings Julian started seeing ghosts, and one day woke up and found all his crops had died. He tried many things to improve his crops but he couldn’t because the spirit damaged it. He became more and more scared.”
Barrera built an altar in his one-room cabin on the island where he and his wife lived, hoping to appease the spirit.
“But the spirit still came,” Santna said. “So he started collecting dolls as a way to protect himself from the spirit.”
Over the next half-century, Barrera collected more than 1,000 dolls — some from the trash in the area’s main city, others gifted by neighbors and visitors. They’re all still there, decaying, sometimes beheaded and truly creepy. Everywhere you look, there are dirty dolls hanging from trees, nailed to buildings and other structures, strung along clothes line.
In 2001, according to Santana, Barrera died of a heart attack in the same spot where he had found the body of the girl.
“The spirit of the girl came to him and dragged him into the water,” Rogelio said. “He and his wife could never have children [because of the island], so my uncle Anastacio took over.”
After Anastacio’s death in 2019, Santana assumed guardianship of the island, although he and his wife and three children do not live there, choosing to stay on their own island 20 minutes away.
Over the years, several other imitation doll islands have popped up in the canal. “It is big business now,” Santana said. But there is only one true Island of the Dolls.
Santa said he sometimes sees “some shadows in the night with the moonlight” but other visitors have claimed to have witnessed the dolls eyes moving and hearing them talk.
As for what will happen to the island when he dies, Santana said: “The ownership, I leave to the dead.”