Xochimilco and The Island of the Dolls

Xochimilco and The Island of the Dolls February 19, 2017 · 18 min. read

The Island of the Dolls is in Xochimilco, a borough south of Mexico City. While it would be faster to take a car from Mexico City to Xochimilco, the traffic is dense and the roads are very congested. Instead, if you're going there, I'd recommend taking metro, which is easy and the cheapest in the world. What you gain in comfort, however, you lose in speed, as the train ride takes about 2 hours.

Wall art in Xochimilco Mexico Wall art in Xochimilco Mexico

Mexico City and Xochimilco both sit in the Valley of Mexico. Until about a millennium ago, the whole region around Mexico City was surrounded by a massive body of water. Over the centuries due to both climate change and interference by humans, most of this water has dried up, for the exception of Xochimilco. With networks of canals crisscrossing the borough, car transportation is difficult and water transportation is essential. I'm sure there were motorized boats somewhere in the waters of Xochimilco, but I never saw any. Instead, canoes and rafts are common on the water. However, the most popular vessel is a trajinera – a colourful gonadal-like boat that is pushed along the water with a wooden pole.

Trajineras in Xochimilco Mexico

Xochimilco is known worldwide for their Floating Gardens market, which are essentially canoes floating down the canals, selling wares to tourists on trajineras. These include things like food, drinks, silver rings, trinkets, ponchos and sombreros. Occasionally other trajineras full of Mariachi bands will approach tourists and offer to play beside them on the water.

Xochimilco Floating Market Xochimilco Floating Market Xochimilco Floating Market

I went to Xochimilco twice while visiting Mexico City, and never bought anything from the Floating Gardens. This wasn't because they didn't sell things I liked – I saw some very nice silver jewelry I know my girlfriend would love – but because I had my heart set on another destination on the canals: The Island of the Dolls. 

I first learned about The Island of the Dolls while watching Ghost Adventures several years ago. This show features Zak Bagans, Aaron Goodwin and several other paranormal investigators as they venture to haunted locations around the world. Their show primarily takes place in the United States, but occasionally it drifts into other countries.

The story of the island begins in 1951 with a young man named Don Julián Santana Barrera. One day Don was walking along the coast of the island when he found a young girl, floating face down in the water.  Not far away from her he then found a small doll. Believing it belonged to the girl; Don picked up the doll and hung it in a nearby tree as a sign of respect. Not long after his encounter with the little girl, Don heard a child whispering, walking around or crying during the night. Stories differ at this point as some report Don was a religious loner and lived on the island, and others say he was a happily married man with a wife and children. Some reports say Don was living alone when the whispering started, while others say it drove him away from his family and to the island to live in isolation. Both accounts seem to agree that, to appease the anguished spirit of the little girl, Don collected dolls and hung them in trees around the island. He would continue to do this for fifty years.

While researching this story, I found an article by Messy Nessy Chic, which describes Don's final days. In 2001 Don's nephew Anastasio came to visit him at the island and the two went fishing together. While they were out on the water, Don began to sing. When asked why he was singing, Don said it was to keep the spirits of the mermaids away, as they were trying to beckon him into the water. The canals of Xochimilco are supposedly haunted by the souls of soldiers, so this idea wasn't too extraordinary and Anastasio just shrugged it off. Upon getting back to shore, Anastasio went to go check on some pumpkins Don was growing elsewhere on the island. When he returned, he found his uncle face down in the waters near the island – in the same spot Don said the little girl was found 50 years ago. As Anastasio approached his uncle, he saw something large swim away from the body beneath the dark waters of the canal. This has many locals believing Don's ramblings about the mermaids might have been true.

Don Julián Santana Barrera's grave at The Island of the Dolls

Since then, Anastasio has been the caretaker of the island, collecting dolls and respecting Don's legacy. The island has grown in notoriety over the years as a tourist destination. Somebody has even set up a "replica island" near Xochimilco's Floating Gardens for tourists to see, but instead it is covered in paper signs and modern toys, like Spiderman. Don't be confused by this replica island, however, as the real island is two hours down the river and is only accessible via pre-arranged tours. I learned this after going to Xochimilco the first time, only to find out the tour I was on didn't go all the way there. This resulted in a second trip to the canals, which proved a lot more eventful than the first one.

>Sofi Alejandra in Xochimilco Mexico

The vessel I took the second time was called the Sofi Alejandra, and my guide was Anne. Anne was younger than me and spoke very little English, so for the majority of the trip we travelled in silence.

After floating down the canals for about an hour, Anne slowed the boat, walked to the front of the vessel and stood in utter confusion at what she was seeing. In the middle of the canal ahead of us was a giant concrete structure with several workers walking around above it. Anne yelled at them, and they yelled back. This continued for a few minutes and she pulled the Sofi Alejandra off to the side of the water. She then came and said "One moment please".

Anne then chatted with one of the workers. After a few minutes she then took out her phone, called somebody (I assume it was her father) and then passed the phone to the dock worker. They spoke for a few more minutes and then Anne came back. She told me something in Spanish, but I did not understand what it was. After a few minutes of charades and broken English, I learned the Sofi Alejandra was too big to fit through the dock and we had to go back. I assumed this was the end of the tour so I said si, yes. Anne looked at me surprised but then went back to commanding the vessel. Had I known what I just agreed to, I would have said no.

About ten minutes after leaving the dock, Anne pulled the Sofi Alejandra up to a house on the canal. In the backyard were a father, mother and young child. Anne said something to them, and they said something back. I figured Anne and the mother were related – sisters or cousins or something – and we to leave the Sofi Alejandra here and take their canoe instead. The canoe was called Lovhe, and was a small, blue vessel. Anne had me sit on a small wooden chair at the front of the boat and she steered and oared from the back. Once we were settled, we headed back to the dock.

After arriving back at the dock, Anne and the worker shouted at each other a little more, and we pulled the boat up to the side of the dock. I got off first, then Anne, and then the workers hopped down into it. I assumed we would go through the dock, but instead we were going over it. The workers hooked up ropes and pulleys to the boat and pulled it up. After watching them struggle for a few minutes, I put my camera and technology aside and helped them. Once we got it on top, we pushed it across the dock. As soon as the boat crossed over the edge, however, one rope snapped and the boat fell vertically into the water. They untied the front of the boat, got the boat back to the bottom of the dock and bailed it out the best they could, checking for damages. The boat was good to go, but the whole process took over an hour.

Getting Lovhe over the dock Getting Lovhe over the dock Getting Lovhe over the dock

We tipped the workers 50 pesos and headed down the canal. While the canals before the dock were civilized and full of shops and houses, the canals after the dock were wild and unkept. Dogs barked at us from strained chains, chickens squawked in cages and trees hung over the waters. We passed a few other boats on our way, but nobody was trying to sell us anything – we were far from the Floating Gardens at this point.

Canals of Xochimilco after the dock Canals of Xochimilco after the dock Canals of Xochimilco after the dock

A half hour later I was focusing my camera on a bird that resembled a pelican when our dock touched shore. I turned to my left and gasped. Before me were dozens of dolls, hanging from trees, and a bamboo gate hiding the island from visitors. We had arrived at The Island of the Dolls.

Welcome to The Island of the Dolls Buildings on The Island of the Dolls

Anne called out and the gate slowly opened. On the other side was an older gentleman. He offered his hand and helped me onto the island, and asked me something in Spanish. Anne responded with what I believe was "He doesn't speak Spanish". The man then led me onto the island, talking to me in broken English.

The first place we visited was a building to the right of the gate. The man showed the mysterious drowned girl's doll, and Don's favorite doll. It was at this moment I realized this man was no other than Anastasio, Don's nephew! After realizing this, I told him I saw him on Ghost Adventures. He laughed and showed me the doll that laughed at Zak and Aaron during their investigation, along with other dolls that were in the show.

Anastasio and Don Julián Santana Barrera Doll that laughed at Zak and Aaron from Ghost Adventures Don's first doll Don's favorite doll

Being as Anastasio and I had a communication barrier to overcome, after we visited the house, he gave me free range to explore the island. 

Dolls on wall Dolls with spiderwebs on mouth Wall of dolls Naked doll Doll on wood Princess Doll Armless Doll Dolls on wire Evil doll

Locals say the island is "charmed", not haunted, but I felt nothing positive or negative while there. I was open to any spirits that might be there as I heard it was one of the creepiest places on the planet, but I felt nothing. Yes, it was odd seeing all these dolls hanging from trees, but I never felt a paranormal presence. This was very much in contrast to the hospital in Chernobyl or the prison cells in Auschwitz in which I felt somewhat uneasy. It could be because the spirits were quiet that day or because they were positive spirits or maybe the island isn't haunted at all. It could also be because I've seen such horrible stuff on my travels already that a rotting impaled doll head on a stake just doesn't creep me out anymore. Either way I felt nothing out of the normal when I was there.

I was a little disappointed that I sensed nothing, but I was also just happy to be there after the ordeal at the dock. On my way there I was thinking the spirits of the island didn't want me to visit and was setting up challenges to get in my way, but once I got there I sensed nothing to back up that theory.

Doll with sunshine in hair Doll with stick in eye Spiderdoll Peek-a-boo doll Cabbage Patch Doll Doll with yellow eyes Doll from above Are you looking at me doll Wedding doll Happy doll Doll head impaled

After wrapping up with my pictures, I thanked Anastasio and met back up with Anne, who was lying in the boat resting. After a few minutes and one final goodbye, we were back on our way.  

In an hour we arrived back at the dock. I realized later I spent more time at this dock than I did at the island. The water level on this side of the dock was lower than on the other side, so it took a lot more manpower to get the boat up. About 40 minutes into rope pulling and pulley swinging, a red van pulled up and we tied the ropes to its bumper. This helped us get the boat onto the dock, and sheer manpower helped us push it to the edge. This time the boat went into the water with no problem. Although this was the second time we took Loveh to the dock, it still took us an hour and half to get her over it.

Getting Lovhe over the dock again Getting Lovhe over the dock again Getting Lovhe over the dock again

We eventually got back to the Sofi Alejandra, thanked Anne's sister-cousin for her boat and went back home. What should have been a five hour journey, ended up taking over seven hours. Both Anne and I were exhausted by the end of the whole thing. Once we arrived back where we started, she pointed me towards the metro station, I tipped her 200 pesos and we said our goodbyes.

The trip was long, and had many challenges along the way, but I enjoyed it. I felt the Island didn't live up to the expectations I gave it, but I was happy I went. Given the chance, I would go back, but I'd wait until they finished fixing the dock first.

What's the spookiest place you've ever been? Would you ever go to The Island of the Dolls? Tell me about it in the comments below!  

Don't forget to pin it!

Xochimilco and The Island of the Dolls Xochimilco and The Island of the Dolls Xochimilco and The Island of the Dolls

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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