Just south of Mexico City, you'll find la Isla de las Muñecas, a haunted island where countless decaying dolls hang in the trees.
Just a few miles south from the center of Mexico City lies La Isla de las Muñecas, the Island of the Dolls. The island is filled with hundreds — possibly thousands — of hanging, decomposing, and decapitated dolls.
While the exact number of decaying dolls hasn't been recorded, the story of how the island came to be overrun with dolls is far more intriguing. As legend has it, the first doll was hung when the island's sole inhabitant found the corpse of a drowned girl and her doll.
Fearing vengeance from the girl's spirit, he hung up her doll as a kind of offering. Then, worried one doll wouldn't satisfy the spirit, he continued to collect and hang dolls for decades — until the day of his eerie death.
Today the Island of the Dolls is a popular, albeit macabre, sightseeing attraction. Tucked away some 11 miles from the heart of Mexico City, a visit to the island is just a winding riverboat ride away.
The Unsettling Legend Behind The Island Of The Dolls
In the 1950s, Don Julián Santana Barrera decided to abandon his family and live alone on the arable sliver of uninhabited land on Teshuilo Lake. The island's new caretaker occasionally ventured to the neighboring Barrio de la Asunción to sell his vegetables and enjoy the popular pulque — an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.
However, his ever-growing superstitions led him to start preaching the Bible around town. Eventually, the sector expelled him, and he remained on his island.
One day, Barrera came upon the dead body of a drowned girl and her doll. Superstitious and deeply religious, he grew fearful that the dead girl's spirit haunted the island. He decided to hang her doll up on a tree to appease her potentially vengeful soul and started a habit he wouldn't break for the rest of his life.
To keep the girl's spirit content, Barrera retrieved dolls that had washed up in the lilies of the canal and saved them from the garbage wherever he went. These discarded dolls were hanged up across the island in whatever ramshackle state he found them in.
According to some stories, Barrera was increasingly haunted by a girl whispering, "I want my doll" and footsteps in the dead of night. While it's unknown what exactly he experienced in his hut, in the thick of the jungle miles away from civilization, one thing is terrifyingly certain.
Barrera was found dead in 2001 — drowned in the same spot he reported finding the dead girl and her doll nearly 50 years before.
How Isla De Las Muñecas Became An Macrabe Attraction
The legend of Don Julian Santana Barrera's dolls remains fairly disputed. His relatives believe that the story was merely an evocative backdrop to give his efforts an intriguing allure. Others believe a girl did drown there — and that she haunted him up until his death.
Whether or not the frightening tales are true, the entire island still boasts dolls today in various states of decay.
As evidenced by the dirt-covered surfaces and eroding materials, Barrera never cared to clean or fix the dolls. He welcomed them as they were and hung them up with missing eyes or torn limbs, and they've since endured years of weather and continuous wear-and-tear.
Barrera also maintained a cabin filled with dolls that he would dress up in headdresses and sunglasses to a whole roster of other accessories. As word of the mysterious island began to spread, curious visitors would make their way to Barrera's little kingdom, where he welcomed them with open arms.
Once he realized that visitors were willing to pay a small fee for a guided tour, this bizarre site grew popular. And after Barrera himself was found dead in 2001 in the same spot he claimed to have found a dead girl 50 years earlier, it grew into the commercial hotspot it is today.
Is The Island Of The Dolls Still Around Today?
La Isla de las Muñecas is currently in the care of Anastasio Santana Velasco — Barrera's nephew.
In the last two decades, boat tours in Mexico City have popped up to take visitors to the Island of the Dolls. Though Barrera saw his collection as an assortment of beautiful protectors, a fair amount of tourists find the island bizarre and terrifying.
The creepy atmosphere sets in during the boat ride, which is part of a four-hour round trip that costs $75. Though the excursion begins with a winding ride through lush greenery and chirping birds, the growing amount of lily pads slow the boat down as the island draws closer.
From pelicans and kingfishers to egrets and plenty of water snake species, the ride showcases the beauty at the heart of the jungle — until the island appears. For professional photographer Cindy Vasko, La Isla de las Muñecas was the "creepiest place" she ever visited.
"At the end of the journey, the trajinera (boat) turned along a bend in the waterway, and I was struck by a surreal vision of hundreds, maybe thousands, of dolls hanging from trees on the tiny island," she said.
Locals insist that the spirits on Mexico's doll island come alive at night and whisper to each other. Some visitors bring their own dolls as a sign of respect and to ask for blessings.
While the dolls will always be the island's main attraction, there's also a small museum that features newspaper clippings and Barrera's supposed favorite doll, Agustinita.
But although the island has become a tourist attraction, it all started because Barrera made his home alone on a scrap of isolated land. Some say that when he died, his spirit joined the others that supposedly haunt La Isla de las Muñecas.
After learning about Mexico's strangely disturbing Island of the Dolls, take a look at the Serbian skull tower of Niš in 15 chilling images. Next, look at haunting photos of Nagoro, Japan, the village where dolls replace the dead.