Just a few miles south of Mexico City, between the canals of Xochimilco on Teshuilo Lake, sits the Isla de las Muñecas – the “Island of the Dolls.” The macabre tourist attraction dates back to the mid-20th century and is the creation of the late Don Julian Santana Barrera, who allegedly began hanging dolls around the island to appease the spirit of a deceased girl.
There’s still debate as to the authenticity of the legend surrounding Barerra and the island, but what’s certain is it’s one of the most unusual (and nightmare-inducing) locations tourists will ever visit.
The legend behind the Island of the Dolls
The story behind the Island of the Dolls centers on Don Julian Santana Barrera. According to legend, Barrera left his family at some point in the mid-20th century and isolated himself on the island, for reasons that remain unknown. During his early years living there, he would travel to the neighboring area to sell vegetables he’d grown. He’d also drink at local establishments.
However, Barrera soon began to preach the Bible, leading residents to ban him from visiting.
It’s said Barrera discovered the body of a girl who had drowned under mysterious circumstances in the water near the island. Shortly after, he found a doll, which he believed belonged to the child. He hung it from a tree, to both show respect for the girl’s spirit and out of fear of her.
Despite local legend, there are those who believe Barrera made up the girl’s existence to keep unwanted visitors from traveling to the island.
More and more dolls are hung around the island
It’s claimed that, despite his attempts to appease the girl’s spirit, Barrera continued to be haunted by her. This led him to collect even more dolls, amassing over 1,000, which he hung around the island. Not all were whole, either. He’d hang them from trees in various states of disrepair, and even kept some in his cabin, which he dressed in sunglasses, headdresses and other accessories.
To some, it appeared as though Barrera was possessed by some unseen force.
According to local legend, those who visited the island claimed to witness the dolls open their eyes and move their heads and limbs. There were even some who said they’d heard the toys whispering to each other, in a way luring them to the island. Similar to Barrera, it was common for people to bring their own dolls when visiting, as a sign of respect for the little girl’s spirit.
In 2001, after 50 years of collecting dolls, Barrera was found deceased, allegedly drowned in the same area where he’d found the girl all those decades before. It’s believed by many that he joined her and the other spirits who have since made the island their home.
A macabre tourist attraction
Following Barrera’s death, the Island of the Dolls began to see an uptick in tourists who wanted to pay tribute to the man’s legacy. Care of the island was passed to his nephew, Anastasio Santana Velasco, and after he, too, died, control was given to Rogelio Sanchez Santana, Barrera’s great nephew.
At the time of his death, Barrera had already begun to charge fees for guided tours of the island, and this tradition continued after he’d passed. Over the past two decades, boat tours have popped up in Mexico City, advertising a macabre experience that also allows tourists to take in the area’s wildlife, including pelicans, water snakes, egrets and king fishers.
When visiting the island, it’s common for people to bring their own dolls, in a show of respect for the former caretaker.
Since Barrera’s death, the Island of the Dolls has become increasingly popular, being featured in a number of news articles and on television. A museum has even opened on the island, featuring newspaper clippings and the deceased man’s favorite doll, Agustinita.