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Travel

Dark Tourism: Exploring Mexico's Island of the Dolls

@SamWKemp

Located 15 miles from the centre of Mexico City, Xochimilco, lies at the very edge of one of the largest metropolises in the world. The area’s original Aztec inhabitants knew this intricate system of waterways as “the garden of flowers” or “the place where flowers grow”, and in pre-conquistador days the area would have featured constellations of floating gardens (chinampas), which once speckled the lagoons of the Valley of Mexico.

Today, Xochimilco is home to the last remnants of the ancient canal system that connected these various islands, one of which features a particularly bone-chilling tourist attraction. Join us as we embark on our latest dark tourism jaunt: the Island of the Dolls.

Xochimilco remained an essential feature of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) until the 16th century, when Cortés and his troops made the crossing to the valley in search of gold. After allying with tribes who were hostile to the powerful Aztecs, the Spaniards successfully sacked the island metropolis in 1521 and set about damming the rivers. For whatever reason, they never reached Xochimilco, and the area remains one of the few unurbanised landscapes in the vicinity of Mexico City, thanks in large part to UNESCO, which granted the remaining canals World Heritage Status.

Today, Xochimilco attracts millions of tourists each year, many of whom are lured in by the prospect of grabbing a ride on one of the decorated trajineras (wooden barges) that make their way up and down the waterways, some of which boast their very own water-bound mariachi bands. However, the area is famous for something far more sinister than mere pleasure cruising. Travel to the murky heart of Xochimilco, and you’ll soon stumble across Isla de las Muñecas, otherwise known as the Island of the Dolls. On this lonely chinampa, the trees have been decorated with thousands upon thousands of toy dolls, the bulk of which have been decapitated, their heads mounted on protruding branches. Others have been strung up in the branches using long pieces of rope, giving the impression of some mass infanticide.

While the sight of these dead-eyed tree-dwellers is undeniably unnerving, it’s not nearly as disturbing as the reason they were put there. The story goes that the first doll appeared after the island’s only resident, a hermit known as Don Julian Santana Barerra, found the body of a drowned girl washed up on the shore. The following morning, Don Julian went down to the same spot and found a doll bobbing in the water. Believing it must have belonged to the dead girl, he set about fishing the toy out of the water. He then hung it up on a nearby tree in an attempt to ward off any evil spirits. The closure Don Julian had hoped for was scuppered when he found yet another doll in the same spot the following day. In his solitude, Don Julian became obsessed with finding more and more dolls, placing each new find on a branch of its own.

After years of scouring the canals and rummaging through rubbish heaps, word of Don Julian’s doll-infested island began to spread. Curious travellers with a taste for the macabre started showing up on his doorstep with armfuls of dolls, which they offered as a gesture of goodwill. Then, in 2001, Don Julian wandered down to the spot he’d found the dead girl years before and, quite inexplicably, drowned himself. Some doubt the legitimacy of this local legend, but pilgrims continue to add new dolls to the many-headed trees of Isla de las Muñecas either way.