Isla de Las Muñecas – Mexico’s Mystical Island of Dead Dolls

photography by: Wa17gs/ Wikimedia Commons

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Picture this: mist rising from the mangroves in the early morning heat to reveal a pair of glassy eyes in a weather-worn face, staring directly at you, fixed forever in the first and only expression they have ever shown. While the body deteriorates, the eyes remain - unblinking, unwavering and deeply unsettling to those who meet its sphinx-like stare. Does this sound like the start of a Stephen King movie? Perhaps, but in this case, truth is actually stranger than fiction. This is Isla de Las Muñecas, the Island of Dolls, part of the floating gardens of Xochimilco, Mexico City.

The Floating Gardens

The floating gardens along the canals of Xochimilco were created for agricultural purposes to help feed the needs of an ever-increasing population. In Mexico, these are known as chinampas and they are made from interwoven reeds and stakes beneath the surface of the water.  Soil and vegetation are then packed on top to make an area of fertile land.  The name “Xochimilco” comes from Nahuatl and means “flower field”, representing the abundance of flowers and crops grown here. Today, Xochimilco is a working-class neighborhood famous for its colorful canal boats and consequent party atmosphere. But deep in this ecosystem, you will find one of the most bizarre islands in the world.

Isla de las Muñecas

About an hour from the main ports of Xochimilco, you will find Isla de las Muñecas, a mysterious “doll museum” where discarded former childhood confidantes in various states of disrepair can be found staring blankly at you from tree branches overhead. Rumor has it that if you listen carefully enough, you can hear them whispering to you. The dolls come in all shapes and sizes – some missing limbs, eyes or even heads. The end result is a macabre tableau, a shrine to once-favored playthings abandoned to the ceaseless onward march of time.

The Origins of the Dolls

This story is not a happy one, nor does it have a happy ending – it hits a lot closer to the original Grimm tales than the watered-down version fed to children to avoid giving them nightmares. Don Julián Santana Barrera was once a family man, married with a child before alcoholism took its hold and ultimately resulted in his banishment to the floating gardens. One day, the body of a young girl washed up on his property, followed by a doll a few days later.


Believing the doll to be hers, he placed it in a nearby tree so that her spirit would be able to find it. Some believe the girl never existed, that she was a figment of his tortured imagination but either way, the discovery of the doll set in motion an obsession for Don Julián: collecting dolls to hang them in the trees around his property in an attempt to ward off evil spirits. It seems things went downhill with Don Julián despite his best efforts: his crops failed and he was eventually found dead at the age of 71 – purportedly in the exact same spot that he found the dead girl years earlier.

Local Beliefs

While some locals believe that the island is a charmed place, protected by the spirits, other more superstitious locals claim it is haunted with many refusing to go near it at night. Some boat operators will bring you there but will not actually set foot on it, believing it to be cursed. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is no doubt that Doll Island is the product of a haunted mind.

The island as a Tourist Attraction

I’m not sure which is more poignant: the death of a young girl and subsequent discovery of her body by a reclusive, lonely man; or the perceived physical manifestation of the ghosts of a tortured mind, trapped in a vortex of addiction and isolation. Either way, the island attracts many curious visitors each year; a testament to both our fascination with the macabre and the grim reality of one man’s mental decline.

Getting There

Getting to Xochimilco from the centre of Mexico City is easy – take the blue line metro all the way to the end (Tasqueña station) then switch to the Tren Ligero to get to Xochimilco. The embarkation points for the boats are well signposted from the train station. To get to Isla de Las Muñecas, you will need to charter a boat from one of the local operators. It’s best to go with a group because prices are agreed per boat. You will need to negotiate a price and you should expect to pay between 1,000 MXN and 1,500 MXN (US$50 to US$80) for the return trip.

Xochimilco barges

photography by: Sinead Browne

Avoiding the scams

Despite local superstitions, where there is a possibility of cash to be made, there will be those looking to jump on that bandwagon, meaning imitation “Doll Islands” have sprung up around the floating gardens of Xochimilco. However, none can emulate the desolation and creeping sense of dread of the original site. Once you make it very clear where you want to go and you have Google Maps, you shouldn’t have any issues getting to the correct place.

About Us

We are Sinéad and Adam, an Irish couple with an insatiable appetite for travel.  After 6 months exploring South America in 2012, we subscribed to the corporate world for a few years to replenish our travel funds.  In 2019, we packed our lives into backpacks once again and we travelled around South East Asia and Turkey extensively, including an 8 month stay in the Philippines at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the world was locked down, we focused on building our savings to give us the freedom to travel again and in 2022, we explored Southern Europe before heading to the US and Central America, where we are currently.  Always up for an adventure!

Instagram: @wherethefeckarewe

photography by: The Brownes