XOCHIMILCO, MEXICO—They’re in the trees and on the ground, bunched together on wooden fence posts and hanging from clotheslines like laundry left to dry. Their dead eyes stare at you from half-empty sockets, their dirty hair hangs like cobwebs. Their skin is scabbed and peeling away, and their plump limbs are scattered everywhere—arms and legs strewn about haphazardly, decapitated heads impaled on stakes.
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This is not a nightmare. It’s La Isla de las Muñecas, a real place located in a southern borough of Mexico City on a man-made island that for decades has been home to hundreds of dilapidated dolls.
The island was once the property of Don Julián Santana, a local farmer. Legend has it that in 1950 he saw a little girl drown in the canal and her spirit began haunting the place. Terrified, Don Julián started collecting dolls to protect himself from her ghost. He gathered them from trash heaps and hung them around the island like creepy Christmas ornaments. Over half a century, he collected more than 1,500 of these little horrors. The oldest is still there, hanging in a shed by the entrance. From afar, it looks like the decaying corpse of a child.
Santana died of a heart attack in 2001, and a small white cross near the water marks his grave. His cousin Anastasio now lives on the island, running it as a tourist attraction. “The spirit of the little girl is still here,” he says. “It’s important not to remove the dolls.”
At night, he says, they come alive. “They will move their heads and whisper to each other. It’s very spooky, but I have gotten used to it.”
Xochimilco is best known for its chinampas, artificial islands created by the Aztecs to serve as floating gardens where food was grown for the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. Tourists now flock to the islands, using gondolas to traverse the waters, eating, drinking and listening to mariachi music along the way.
A trip to the Island of the Dolls takes about two hours by boat and leads you through quiet green pastures where birds and farm animals graze. It’s a far cry from the smog and frenzy of Mexico City, a sprawling capital that’s home to roughly 9 million people.
Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural are part of the local lore here in Xochimilco. At Cuemanco, one of the docks from where the gondolas embark, there are numerous crosses and plaques dedicated to La Llorona, the “Weeping Woman.” Locals say she killed her children to be with the man she loved. When he rejected her, she drowned herself. When the islands are covered in fog, many claim the Weeping Woman haunts the area, crying out for her kids.
“Ghosts are very real,” Anastasio says. “Some of them are old, like La Llorona, others more recent, like my uncle’s dolls. It’s important to pay tribute to them.”
That tribute also makes for a nice tourist attraction—albeit one that will haunt you in your dreams.