Set sail for Mexico’s famed Xochimilco Canals and you’re bound to encounter lush floating gardens, cozy tourists in canoes, and sweet-singing mariachi bands on brightly painted trajineras.
Remain on the water long enough, however, and you’ll spot a far less relaxing sight: a tiny island festooned with the cracked heads and broken limbs of severely weathered dolls.
Welcome to la Isla de las Muñecas – the Island of the Dolls.
The legend of the Island of the Dolls centers on one man, a hermit named Don Julian Santana Barrera, who lived on a small island within the Xochimilco canal system.
One morning, so the story goes, Don Julian made a tragic discovery: the body of a little girl floating by his island home.
Whether this dark encounter truly occurred is uncertain. No evidence exists to prove the hermit found a body. Many believe he merely dreamed up the grisly scene.
In either case, his response to the vision was very real. Soon after Don Julian witnessed the drowned child, he spotted a doll in the water. To honor the dead girl’s spirit, and protect his home from further tragedy, Don Julian placed the toy in a nearby tree.
But one doll offering was not enough. The next day, another plastic face drifted by … then another. Don Julian fished each doll out of the canal and arranged them in the trees. Parts were strung up in branches with wire and string. Sometimes, he even dressed the mud-stained figurines in discarded glasses or thrown away clothing.
Soon the entire island was wreathed in the plastic heads and limbs of forgotten toys.
Many found the island frightening at first sight – but Don Julian was a gracious host. He welcomed visitors to his home, and happily explained his ever-growing memorial to the spirit world.
Sadly, in 2001, Don Julian drowned; his body was discovered in the same spot where he claimed to have found the dead child all those years ago.
Yet la Isla de las Muñecas lives on. Locals tend to the island, while travelers from around the world seek out the site. Some even arrive with new dolls to hang in the trees, continuing Don Julian’s tradition.
Take a tour of the island in the photos below, courtesy of Flickr user 53Kevin.