It’s best if I start by setting the scene.
There’s four of us, plus our boatman, on a bright and colouful covered trajinera, the gondola-esque wooden boats that navigate the historic canals of Mexico City’s Xochimilco district.
It’s a Monday, and had we come one day earlier, it would have been packed with Mexican families drinking cervezas and picnicking on a veritable flotilla, catching up and enjoying each others’ company to the sounds of traditional musicians drifting slowly by. Today, it’s nearly empty, save a few local families on vacation, and a few travellers like ourselves, but the mood is cheery as we float by, offering smiles, waves and more than a few holas, most of which are returned enthusiastically.
We came to Xochimilco with a mission to visit the incredibly strange, and would-be-heartbreaking (if it wasn’t so kitschy), Island of the Dolls. And what will turn into a 7-hour total journey is really just beginning.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out the canals of Xochimilco are a world heritage site. And what became abundantly clear to us shortly after arriving, is that many in town seem to be well aware of the income potential that comes from such a label.
As soon as we left the train station, helpful strangers began pointing us in the direction of the Embarcadero, about 10 minutes’ walk away. At first, we were impressed — Mexicans are, in our experience, extremely helpful and welcoming to visitors, and we assumed we were on the receiving end of some warm hospitality.
And then it just got ridiculous.
In the 10-minute walk, no fewer than 10 men gave us unsolicited directions to the Embarcadero. And as it went on, the seeds of suspicion began sprouting in our minds.
As it turns out, we were being directed to the significantly more expensive Embarcadero. What should have been $1400 pesos, for a 4-hour trip, was being sold to us for $2500. Add to that, he was offering bottles of water at a 1233% increase compared to shop prices. And if that wasn’t enough, he was setting up what I can only assume is a practiced scam: he told us the boat lift, which is necessary to get to the Island of the Dolls, wasn’t working the day prior, warning we may have to give up about an hour into our journey, forfeiting a significant amount of our agreed upon price.
Having researched the price, and with the man refusing to budge, we made the decision to give up, walk back to the train station, and head back to Mexico city with our pride in tact.
And we did just that. Retracing our steps, we glanced down a main road as we set off back to the train station, only to find a smaller, separate dock full of boats. So we went there, negotiated a fair price in less than 5 minutes, confirmed the good and consistent health of the boat lift, and set out to see Mexico’s Island of the Dolls.
The story behind Island of the Dolls is conflicting, but the general idea is this: years ago, a local girl drowned in the river surrounding the island, despite the island caretaker’s best efforts to save her. Shortly after her death, a doll washed up in the same place as her body, and the caretaker, Don Julian Santana Barrera, hung the doll on a tree to honour her departed spirit.
The only problem? Her spirit hadn’t departed.
The story continues that Don Julian was profoundly changed by his inability to save the little girl. He became obsessed with the doll, and was driven to compulsion — I can only presume the doll/dead daemon girl was controlling him, at this point — to add more dolls to the island until his death, 50 years later, when he was found drowned in the exact same place as the girl.
Over the years, stories of the dolls whispering to each other, and luring people onto the island, have creeped into the story.
When we heard that, we knew: we had to go there.
Getting to the Island of the Dolls
With that cheery backstory in our minds, we set out through the world heritage canals of Xochimilco. The first 40 minutes or so are set against the typical fiesta background of a popular Mexican destination: families and groups of friends, food, live music, and kitschy museums. Most people opt to simply enjoy the canals, rather than push on to Island of the Dolls, and the fiesta atmosphere reflects Xochimilco’s reputation for being a fun place to spend a leisurely afternoon.
And then things change.
The canals of Xochimilco are ancient, a throwback to the pre-Hispanic Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which thrived between the 14th and 16th centuries as capital of the Mexican empire. The canals were a part of the city’s transportation network, but after more than six centuries of use, and modern-era neglect that includes over use of the water, raw sewage inputs, and invasive species, they’re in rough shape.
And that becomes abundantly clear once you pass the boat lift, and enter a separate section of the canals that is a world a way from the initial fiesta atmosphere.
The first thing we noticed was the impossible-to-ignore sewage smell, unmistakably backed up by the visual of sewage spewing into the canal we were now floating through.
As we left the sewers, the canal curved, and we found our boat fighting through overgrown weeds that have taken over the waters.
We were the only boat around, and all of a sudden, the journey felt creepy, and my imagination started running wild.
It took us about 2 hours to get to the dolls, alternating between thick, overgrown weeds, and clear waters. We passed orchards, where local families grow succulents and flowers, and a few boats with locals, who were using the canals like the Aztecs did, as a system of transportation, not leisure. For the most part, people took little interest in us as we passed, but a few times we were looked at with what felt like contempt and suspicion, and again — my imagination roamed wild.
By the time we arrived at the island, our boat man was sweating from the work of getting us through the weeds, and our bladders were near bursting. We met the new island caretaker, Don Julian’s son, apparently, and were given a brief history of the dolls, before being set free to explore on our own.
Yes: it’s as strange and creepy as you think it is.
How to Visit Island of the Dolls as a Daytrip from Mexico City
The trip from Insurgentes, near Mexico City’s Zona Rosa, to the Island of the Dolls and back, took a full day…between 7 and 8 hours. Here’s how we did it:
- Take the metro to the end of Line 2 (the blue line) to Tasqueña. The blue line includes the Zocalo as a stop, so it shouldn’t bee too difficult to get too, and it’s only $5 pesos per ticket.
- At Tasqueña, follow the signs to transfer to the light rail (Tren Ligero). The light rail uses reloadable cards, and as far as we know, you can share the card between more than one person. The card costs $10 pesos, and the trip costs $3 pesos. So if two people share one card, it should cost $22 round-trip on the light rail ($10 for the card, $6 per person round trip). Buy and load the card in the vending machines near the train, and bring small change to do so (it either didn’t accept bills, or was having trouble with the bills when we were there).
- Take the Tren Ligero until the end of the line, Xochimilco.
- When you get off the train at Xochimilco, you can walk to the Embarcadero in about 10 minutes. Feel free to go to the “big” one to get an initial idea of price, but don’t be afraid to negotiate until you arrive at around $350 pesos per hour for 4 hours. If you can’t get that at the big dock, walk back to the main street, take a left along the main street for about half-a-block, and find the smaller dock.
The boat trip is legitimately epic. It took us four hours, and it was hard work for the boat man, who was poling us through really thick weeds that reminded me of kudzu. He was sweating buckets and exhausted by the time the day was over, which is to say he earned his money. The boats are also rented by boat per hour, not per person. So the more people you have (within reason…they could probably fit 8 or so), the cheaper it is per person.
Have you been to Island of the Dolls? Let us know in the comments!
15 thoughts on “Creepy & Weird: Visiting Mexico’s Island of the Dolls in Xochimilco”
OMG! I want to see this place. I love the weird and creepy. I’m glad you were able to find a boat that wasn’t trying to rip you off. That would be so frustrating!
Yes! It’s definitely an unusual spot to visit :)
Good lord! That’s creeped me out looking at those photos from the comfort of my laptop so I can imagine how eerie it must be being there.
That said I have an odd fascination with things like that – added to the list, thanks!
Ha ha ha ha! I think it’s actually scarier in photos than in person. The trip there was creepy, with all the weeds, but when we got to the island, we all had to pee so badly we didn’t have time to get creeped out at first, and then it was just quirky :). Although our travelling companion did say she had a restless sleep that night, so…
Do you know how to contact Don Julian’s son or the new caretaker of the island?
Hey there – the only way I know of is actually going to the island and speaking with him (Spanish only). There wasn’t any cell service out there when we visited. You could also try Mexico City tourism, perhaps? Good luck!
I arrive in Mexico on Saturday night and this has been on my list for soooo long. I plan on going ot the island of the dolls on sunday… shoudl I be worried about going as a solo female traveller? This is probably the most informative post I’ve found on it so thank you!
Hi Jess! We love Mexico City – it’s a great city, and we hope you have a fantastic time :). To be totally honest, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable doing it on my own, simply because you are so isolated for the 2-hour boat trip there and back, with nothing around and no cell service. Chatting it over with Geoff, he mentioned he’s not sure he would have been comfortable doing by himself either. Getting to Xochimilco is fine, and going around the “normal” circuit (not to the island of dolls) was busy enough when we were there. However, once you pass the loch to get to the more isolated side of the canals to go to the dolls, you really are on your own. Likely, it would be totally, fine, but in my experience travelling solo, I liked to stick to areas where there were people around, just in case. Hate to put you off something you want to do – just want to give you an honest account.
If you’re staying at a hostel, I’d suggest getting a group together? Or taking a look for a tour?
Hope this helps and good luck!
Thank you so much for your reply. It has been on my mind a bit about going out there by myself so I am hoping my Mexican friend who lives here in Perth has a friend in Mexico City that is willing to come along.
Thanks again :)
That would be fantastic if you could find a buddy to go with! Fingers crossed for you and enjoy Mexico City no matter what. It’s a fantastic city!
I know you list this as a day trip but are there any restrictions on staying on the island overnight or for a few days? I want to do this so bad!!!!
Hi Katie! It looks like you guys had a great time on your trip! When you arrived to the island did your boatman wait for you or did he come back for you? We are planning a trip there very soon and you gave us such very good information. We heard that you now need a permit to visit the island. Not sure if that’s true but we would love to actually stay there overnight. That would be so cool. Thanks for a great write-up!!
Hey – the boatman did wait for us, so no worries there. We didn’t have a ton of time on the island, but it is very small so we didn’t feel rushed either. There is an island just across the river (it’s quite narrow in that part) that has a campground. I doubt you could stay on the island itself, but it’s neighboring island could be the next best thing! :)
Do you happen to know the name of the island that has a campground on it? I would love to check it out. Also, do you know how to find out more information? Your post regarding the itinerary you followed is extremely helpful! What resources did you use to plan for your trip?
This really is creepy and weird! Great original post.