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!