IT LOOKS like the stuff of nightmares: a grotesque playground of mutilated dolls, many hanging limp from nooses, others with heads attached to spikes, all with soulless eyes staring blankly ahead.
Mexico’s La Isla de las Munecas, or “Island of the Dolls”, has become an unlikely tourist attraction just south of Mexico City, drawing thousands of tourists and photographers morbidly fascinated by the strange spectacle.
Broken and deteriorated dolls of various styles and colors are found throughout the island, originally placed by the former owner of the island, Julián Santana Barrera. Julián believed that dolls helped to chase away the spirit of a girl drowned years ago.
Legend has it that a young girl drowned over 50 years ago, entangled among the lilies of the canal and her body was found on the banks of the Santampa chinampas. Don Julián began to experience inexplicable situations so, terrified, he placed dolls that he found in the garbage or in the canals of Cuemanco with the idea that they would scare the soul of the young lady. He also found a doll floating nearby and, assuming it belonged to the deceased girl, hung it from a tree as a sign of respect.
After this, he began to hear whispers, footsteps, and anguished wails in the darkness even though his hut—hidden deep inside the woods of Xochimilco—was miles away from civilization. Driven by fear, he spent the next fifty years hanging more and more dolls, some missing body parts, all over the island in an attempt to appease what he believed to be the drowned girl’s spirit.
Santana salvaged the dolls from the canals and garbage. He lived in a small cabin, where his photo and a few possessions are still on display, surrounded by trees and some 1500 of his decaying dolls. As word of the island spread Santana began accepting a small fee to show visitors around his peculiar home. 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. But in a dark twist, in 2001, Santana’s nephew found him dead in a canal — in the same spot where Santana had decades earlier discovered the corpse of the girl that inspired his life’s work.
As popular interest in the island and its dark legend grew, relatives of Santana questioned whether the dead girl really existed and suggested it was a figment of Santana’s imagination. After Barrera’s death in 2001,the area became a popular tourist attraction where visitors bring more dolls.
The locals describe it as “charmed”—not haunted—even though travelers claim the dolls whisper to them. The island of the dolls is an hour and a half from Embarcadero Cuemanco. Most rowers are willing to transport people to the island, but there are those who refuse due to superstitions. But the strangeness of the legend behind Santana’s bizarre island continues to fascinate the public.