Doll Island in Mexico: One of the scariest places on earth
An island where mutilated dolls are supposed to drive away the ghost of a dead girl, this haunted place is on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Even die-hards get goosebumps when visiting Isla de las Muñecas. The history of the island.
When Julián Santana Barrera found the dead girl floating in the water, a nightmare began for him that would haunt him for five decades and change his life forever. Until then, the vegetable farmer had led a tranquil existence and sold his goods in Mexico City when his path led him to Xochimilco in the early 1950s – a confusing, 150-kilometer-long system of navigable water channels.
There, on the shore of one of the many islands in the area, about 20 kilometers from the center of the Mexican capital, he finally made a grisly discovery. A young girl had apparently drowned and washed up off an island now known as Isla de las Muñecas – Doll Island, arguably one of the most haunted places not only in Mexico but in the entire world.
No one knows exactly why, but soon after the incident, Barrera began collecting dolls that he found in the trash — or, like the dead girl, washed up on the island’s shores. The possible explanation for this sounds frightening: He supposedly felt haunted, haunted by the spirit of the little ones, whose screams and lamentations could be heard again and again on the island – as Barrera finally reported decades later to his nephew Anastasio Santana. The girl kept whining and asking for toys, according to the eerie tale of the nephew, who still runs Doll Island in Xochimilco, one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs.
Like children on the gallows
But that’s not all: To protect himself from her spirit, old Barrera hung the dolls in the trees of the island – when the wind picked up, it must have looked as if small children’s corpses were dangling from their gallows. He obsessively collected hundreds upon hundreds of dolls, many of them without limbs or eyes, adding to the spooky aura of his chosen island home.
However, there are quite a few who even claim that Barrera mutilated the dolls himself in his paranoia. The spirit of the dead girl simply could not be calmed – so he gave up trying to calm it and instead relied on deterrence. He cut off the limbs of the dolls himself and gouged out their eyes. Barrera was literally captivated by the island and its eerie aura, even reportedly having his nephew bring him food.
His delusion went so far that he chose a very special doll, which he named Augustina because he had fished it out of the water on August 28th, the day of Saint Augustine. Augustina, also known as “La Moneca”, accompanied him from then on, he was the only one who didn’t hang her in the trees, but put her in a different place every day – to protect her from the little ghost girl’s attacks? According to legend, Augustina granted wishes when he brought her small offerings.
Mysterious death in the water
In 2001, Barrera died after being the sole resident of Mexico’s Doll Island for more than 25 years. His death is also the stuff of legends: One day he went fishing with his nephew on the shores of the island and there the old man told his nephew another horror story. A siren lives in the waters of the canals and has told him several times that it will one day come and fetch him. What happened next finally made Doll Island a place of horror. Anastasio briefly left his uncle to look after the cattle. When he came back, old Barrera was floating dead in the water – supposedly exactly where the young girl had drowned.
However, it was not the siren that got Julián; according to unanimous reports, he died of a heart attack. At that time, Mexico’s Doll Island was already world famous, and even today it is an attraction that almost magically attracts tourists from all over the world. Countless newspapers already reported on the Isla delas Muñecas during the lifetime of old Barrera, although there are quite a few who consider the story about the drowned girl to be a fiction.
Initiation rites on the Isla de las Muñecas
Various dolls hanging in trees or bushes on the Isla de las Muñecas today, however, date from more recent times. They are brought to the island by young Mexicans who, as part of an initiation rite, spend a night all alone on the spooky island. Like Julián Santana, the dolls brought along are supposed to protect Barrera from the evil spirit of the girl who once drowned off the island. In all, there may be more than a thousand dolls, mostly mutilated, on Isla de las Muñecas today. But also stuffed animals with amputated legs and/or arms, such as teddy bears, are now part of the “collection”.
How to get to Doll Island in Mexico City
Anastasio Santana, who still lives alone on the Isla de las Muñecas, grants onlookers access to the island for a fee. The journey there is not easy. From the center of Mexico City you can either take a taxi or, cheaper, take the metro (to the Tasqueña stop) and then take the tram (Tren Ligero) to Xochimilco. In Xochimilco there are various jetties from which so-called trajineras bring visitors to Mexico’s infamous Doll Island.
The large, colorful wooden boats each have space for around 14 people. The price for a tour to Isla de las Muñecas is around 2400 Mexican pesos (about 116 euros), regardless of whether you rent the boat alone, as a couple or with a larger group. If you are traveling alone and want to save money, it is best to join forces with others and then rent the boat together. Since various tours of different lengths and durations are offered at the boat docks, you should make sure that Doll Island is on the program. A stop there is usually only included on the longer, around four-hour boat trips.
Xochimilco – a popular destination
The “Floating Gardens” of Xochimilco, which have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, are a popular destination, especially on weekends. And primarily for the Chilangos, as the residents of Mexico City call themselves. It’s usually not exactly quiet on the boats. Because many Mexicans rent the trajineras together with the mariachi band. People sometimes drink a lot of alcohol to Mexican folk music, mostly in the form of mixed beer drinks, the so-called Micheladas. So if you prefer to enjoy Mexico’s “Floating Gardens” in a quiet atmosphere, it is better to do the tour during the week and outside of the holiday periods.
After paying the entrance fee of 50 pesos (about 2.50 euros), we were allowed to look around the Isla de las Muñecas. Indeed: the dolls look horrible – and children will probably have nightmares at the sight (therefore not suitable for children). Adults, on the other hand, can expect an unknown world full of myths and secrets on Mexico’s Doll Island, which is definitely worth diving into.
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