I once lived in Mexico City for one year, and even though I explored some of the farthest reaches of the country, there was one place that I never managed to visit, even though it was right in the city I was living in. That place was Isla de las Muñecas, or Island of the Dolls.
Isla de las Muñecas is located in the depths of Xochimilco, a canal-filled neighborhood of criss-crossing waterways in the south of Mexico City. I had been to Xochimilco several times during my time in the city, but never made it to Isla de las Muñecas. It’s a several-hour journey, and either we would arrive too late, we wouldn’t arrive at the right dock (embarcadero), or the boat owners weren’t willing to take us.
So when I returned to Mexico City four years later, for the first time since my departure, I had one goal in mind: I wanted to make it to that island.
The legend of Isla de las Muñecas has it that in the 1950’s, a young girl drowned in the canals around the island where a local fisherman lived. The fisherman, haunted by the dead girl’s spirit, began to collect discarded dolls from the canals and from the trash to string them around the island, in order to frighten away the girl’s spirit. The macabre island and its terrifying dolls became somewhat of a local phenomenon, attracting some media attention and is a tradition that the fisherman’s descendants continue to this day.
Accessing la Isla is no easy feat. With my friend Jairo from Texas and Nallely and Juanjo from Mexico City, we arrived at the embarcadero in the early afternoon on a Sunday, which happens to be when all of Mexico City’s families descend upon Xochimilco for an afternoon of drinks, food, and music on its unmistakably colored boats. I had never seen Xochimilco so crowded – there was literally a chaotic traffic jam of boats in the main canal, echoing the streets of the city… it seemed that even in the most far-flung corners of the metropolis, one never escapes the traffic!
Eventually we made it to the lock in the canal where our boat could ostensibly be lowered into a different zone, where the island lied. We learned that Xochimilco is in fact comprised of two zones: the zona turística, the only one I had ever known, and the much lesser known zona ecológica, where we were headed. Unfortunately, it turned out that the lock that was meant to lower our boat was out of order. If we were to continue, there was only one option: we had to leave our boat, and board a tiny, narrow canoe with four rickety chairs in it, and be punted by a nine-year-old until we reached the island. Naturally, we acquiesced.
Although we were all a bit dubious as we initially made our way through the first canal of the zona ecológica, strewn with garbage, sitting in our unstable chairs, trying to keep our shoes away from the seemingly growing puddle of murky water at the bottom of the canoe, half-expecting to be tipped into the water at any time, the canoe eventually came around to the main waterway and we fell under the charm of the zona ecológica. Gone was the clamor and bustle of the boat-choked canals we had just escaped, with its blaring mariachi bands, screaming children, and reggaetón-blasting speakers. We found ourselves the only boat in a tranquil canal, surrounded by greenery and birds, and the small gardens of the people living along the edge of the canals. With the sun shining, we were overcome with giddiness – the journey to this zone alone had been worth it, even without seeing the island!
Yet slowly but surely, we made our way towards la Isla. Our pre-teen capitán let us know we were getting close, as we strained our necks to see the tiny island approaching in the distance. As the dolls strung along the trees of the island came into view, our canoe hit the bank, and I knew we had finally made it, four years later: to the Isla de las Muñecas.
The first thing that strikes one when visiting the island, is that contrary to the horrifying dolls decorating it, the mood is surprisingly jovial. The dolls are truly straight out of a horror movie – not only are they old and decomposing, missing limbs with empty eye sockets, but some have been added fake blood, smudged with charcoal, or otherwise painted to look even more terrifying. The island is covered with them: they hang from the trees, they adorn rickety wooden sheds, both inside and out, they are strung on clotheslines between the trees as if hanging out to dry. Yet those who maintain the island keep a small stand in the middle, where they sell food and beverages – barbecue smoke and laughter fills the air, as does the drifting sound of Mexican pop music, in stark contrast to the island’s grisly surroundings.
As we marveled at the dolls, happy to have each other’s reassuring company to lighten the mood, a distinct sense of satisfaction filled me as I saw that the island was every bit as creepy, surreal and unique as I had imagined it. As we slowly made our way back to our canoe, my friend Nallely came to meet us with a tiny, adorable white kitten in her arms. “Isn’t he adorable?”, she asked us.
“Yes, it’s very cute, where did you find it?”
“They were selling them at the stand – I just bought one!”
Slightly surprised by her purchase of a kitten on the haunted Island of the Dolls, I questioned her to make sure she wasn’t going to regret finding a cat, albeit a small and cute one, in her apartment the next day, but she assured me she had been thinking of getting one for a while now and that this one looked just perfect.
And so, we embarked upon our little canoe with our new white furry friend, a rather remarkable souvenir of a rather remarkable visit, as we made our way back to the mariachi-blasting reality of the tourist canals.
Kitten or not, I knew that we’d always remember the surreal, sunny July afternoon that we embarked upon our adventure to Isla de las Muñecas – just one of the many unique experiences to be had in the world’s second largest metropolis: the teeming, extraordinarily diverse and always surprising place that I was lucky enough to call my home for a year: Mexico City.