I had the opportunity, during my recent February trip to Mexico City, to make a return visit to Xochimilco, the canal district and delegación that has much to offer visitors and Chilangos both. Xochimilco is most famous for its canals, tranquil (albeit polluted) waterways that zig-zag through largely agricultural acreage. This was my fourth or fifth trip to Xochimilco, but rather than take the tren ligero (light rail train) to the market-church-and-canal trifecta that I call Xochimilco Town, I opted for a longer, spookier trip. My destination: Doll Island.
La Isla de las Muñecas (Doll Island) is a small island in a remote section of Xochimilco’s waterways that, as its name suggests, is home to children’s dolls. Hundreds of them. Decaying.
Doll Island is dedicated to the memory (spirit?) of a young girl who, according to legend, drowned in the waters several decades ago. As the website isladelasmunecas.com describes it, her body was discovered by Don Julian Santana Barrera, a local hermit and/or fisherman. Not long afterwards, he retrieved a doll that was floating in the waters and that he assumed belonged to her. He hung the doll on a small island in her honor, and did the same with other dolls that he later found. It is said that Señor Barrera became possessed by the dolls, believing they were the ghosts of various other dead girls. After some 50 years of collecting dolls, he was found dead, floating in the same section of waterway as the girl whose body he discovered five decades earlier.
Are you creeped out yet?
The relatively recent exportation of Halloween to Mexico, combined with growing international interest in that country’s Dia de los Muertos festivities, has made Doll Island something of a tourist curiosity in recent years. I visited with my friend Rosalina and her two boys, and we were not alone on the island. In addition to the hundreds of dolls, their presumed spirits, and the caretaker who has since replaced Señor Barrera, several tourist trajineras (gondolas) arrived at the island while we were there.
The caretaker, who spoke only Spanish, narrated the island’s history. Visitors were not pressured to buy anything, nor rushed off the island. The island itself, which many Chilangos describe – like other islands in Xochimilco – as a chinampa, or “floating garden,” is a photographer’s dream. Most dolls are headless or are missing limbs. Some dolls are just heads, and nothing else. Others are covered with cobwebs or dirt. Many are shriveled, as if they spent too much time in the water. Most are sun-bleached beyond repair.
See for yourself:
Getting to Doll Island
Doll Island is not the easiest place to reach. We drove to Embarcadero Cuemanco, off of Periférico Oriente, just south of where Iztapalapa borough becomes Xochimilco borough. Ask a gondolier to point you to the correct boat, and be sure to purchase food and water before boarding. The journey is two hours in each direction, so expect to pay as much as $1,500 pesos. With Mexico’s currency devaluation as of late, that equates to just $80 USD as of May 2017, making now a good time to go.
Much of Xochimilco is rural in setting, so as with many such places, the journey is as memorable as the destination. Within five minutes of pushing off, you won’t hear a sound except for the chirping of grasshoppers, the gentle splashing of birds landing in the water, the occasional grunt of your gondolier as he struggles to maneuver the trajinera around a bend in the canal, or the laughter of other trajinera passengers as their gondolas pass you by, usually painted red and given a feminine name (our boat was named “Inés”).
Glimpses of civilization occasionally come into view. One large swath of land plays host to a couple of soccer fields, while cows graze on the opposite side. A cactus garden, too “neat” to be anything but human-planted, occupies a 50-yard stretch of shoreline. A pulquería stand, roughly halfway to Doll Island, sat alongside the waterway, and you had better believe that we got off here. A large field, complete with soccer pitch, backed up to the pulquería, and primitive restroom facilities, adorned with creepy dolls, backed up to the campo (field). Looking northwest from there, I immediately recognized the prominent Iztapalapa hill that is Cerro de la Estrella (Star Mountain), crowned by a flat-topped Aztec pyramid.
Bird life is plentiful. I saw garzas (egrets) in the reeds and patos (ducks) in the water, as well as a halcón (hawk) flying overhead. The deep blue sky, warm air, smooth ride, and good company made for a great journey…and the island made for an unforgettable destination.
I would love to visit Doll Island after dark. Who wants to join me?