Amazing Places

The Island of the Dolls Has a Murky and Terrifying History

You may have noticed that we have a thing for spooky places here at the Curiosity offices. There's just something really thrilling about a place with a dark and mysterious past. It's even better if it's surrounded by rumors of a curse or a phantom, but supernatural elements really aren't necessary to give you a case of the willies. Take La Isla de las Muñecas, for example. An island covered with decaying old dolls strung up in trees is pretty creepy on its own — even before you get to the dark origin story.

Related: 10 Strange and Uninhabited Islands

Don Julian's Opus

The story of La Isla de las Muñecas ("The Island of the Dolls") is intimately entwined with the story of Don Julian Santana Barrera. A native of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, Don Julian left his wife and family sometime in the mid-20th century to sequester himself on an island on Teshuilo Lake. His reasons for doing so are hazy at best, but as soon became clear, Santana Barrera was not necessarily of sound mind. Not long after relocating, he made a chilling discovery on the shores of his island: the body of a young girl, drowned in the lake. A doll came floating down the canals shortly afterward, changing the course of Santana Barrera's life and the shape of the island for years to come.

Alone on the island, Barrera took the doll and hung it from a tree in order to appease the spirit of the deceased girl. But, at least in the eyes of the man who now considered himself the island's caretaker, the one doll was not enough. For the next 50 years, Santana Barrera would scrounge dolls from the trash and from the canals, and hang them from the island's many trees. Some he'd hang whole, others in various states of disrepair — headless, torso-less, or taken apart in other ways.

These don't sound like the actions of a person with a healthy grasp on reality, and indeed, there are many doubts surrounding this legend. The biggest question? The reality of the little girl who died. Many people, including Don Julian's own family, didn't believe that he ever found the girl, although whether they believe he made it up, imagined the experience, or was somehow mistaken is unclear. What is clear is that whether the girl existed or not, Don Julian devoted the rest of his life to her. And perhaps creepiest of all, even the end of his life had clear ties to the story of the drowned child.

Death of a Doll Collector

In 2001, Don Julian Santana Barrera passed away. His body was discovered — you guessed it — drowned in the canal, in the exact place he always said he'd seen the little girl. In response, tourists began flocking to the island to pay tribute. They brought dolls of their own, and to this day people honor both Santana Barrera and the girl (whether she was real or not) by hanging up dolls in tribute. You can do so too. Many ferries stop here, making it a macabre must-see on any tour of these ancient Aztec canals.

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There are several millennia worth of ghost stories to be found in Mexico. Read "Mysterious Mexico" by Gustavo Vasquez-Lozano to learn more (it's free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 10, 2018

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