Xochimilco is a southern city in Mexico, famous for its canals. With its colourful gondolas and boats, this city always feels festive. It’s a city tourists from across the globe flock to for obvious reasons. Although not all of the reasons are so obvious. For one thing, not everybody is here for the festive atmosphere. Some are here purely to witness the city’s most mysterious gems: the Island of Dolls.

Between the canals of Xochimilco, visitors will discover a small island that bears a heck of a story. Locals do not know whether its fact or myth, but it’s still a story that spooks many and one that leaves people feeling a little unsure. Nonetheless, it attracts thousands of visitors all desperate to witness the hundreds of unique dolls scattered across the island, for which it is famous.

But before you dismiss it, considering it way too much for your personal taste, there is a story you should hear. The background story behind those hundreds of dolls is one some will believe and others won’t.

Want to hear more? Let’s take a look at 15 unsettling things about the Island of the Dolls. We’re also going to suggest five places to go instead – just in case it’s too out there for your liking.

20 It’s a man-made island with a man-made story

Known as Chinampa, the Island of Dolls is a man-made island with a fascinating story. A recluse called Julian Santana Barrera started the whole story. He was the only resident on the island until he passed away. One day, he discovered a young girl and her doll in the canal.

To honour her memory, Barrera hung her doll up on a tree on the island and started collecting dozens and dozens of dolls to decorate the island in a bid to appease the girl’s spirit. This is how the tradition of suspending dolls began.

19 One doll was not enough

Originally, Barrera only hung up one doll – the girl’s doll. However, this was not enough to ease his troubled mind. He collected dolls from wherever he could: trash heaps, the canal, stores. Wherever he could find a new doll, he would bring it back to string it up.

These dolls, he believed, would make the girl happy. Nobody is sure of the exact year. Some say it happened in the 1950s, while others think it could have dated back to the 1920s.

18 It has since been decorated with more dolls

Santana may have started the tradition, but people have decided to keep it going. Since 2013, in fact, the island has been decorated with over 1500 dolls. So basically if we go to the island, we can expect to see very little other than dolls. That is, after all, the purpose of visiting the island in the first place.

We’re glad nobody removed the dolls and attempted building apartment blocks everywhere. It’s a precious island with a lot of history. It deserves to be preserved and remembered for how it was. The good news is, the original dolls are there too.

17 Don’t expect pretty-looking dolls

It’s not like Toys R Us on the Island of Dolls. We’re not going to see cute pretty dolls scattered around this island. Bearing in mind, Santana found these dolls at least five or six decades ago and they were used dolls back then. Today, the dolls are in even worse condition – even the dolls added from 2013.

Weathered by wind and rain, the island’s dolls don’t look good. You certainly wouldn’t want your child playing with any of them. They’re also a haven for insects. Some of the dolls are missing clothes or parts. Now we can see why it’s a little unsettling.

16 Santana even traded home-grown vegetables for dolls

Santana was so desperate to get hold of dolls for the girl, he even started trading his own home-grown fruits and vegetables for them later in life. It wasn’t easy for him to find so many dolls. He also didn’t leave the island often so the opportunities of collecting dolls came rarely. There’s only so many to find in trash heaps and the canal.

That’s why the island now looks practically like a museum for dolls and we guess in many ways, that’s what it is. It’s a shrine for the little girl and now, for Barrera who started the whole tradition of doll collecting.

15 It takes 2 hours to get there

Thinking of taking a trip to the island? It will certainly be a memorable one. Just make sure you bring a doll with you to hang when you’re there. That’s what many visitors do when they come to the island. Because the Island of Dolls is a tourist site today, many people from all over the world flock here with their cameras and their dolls to see what it’s all about.

It actually takes 2 hours to reach the island by boat, so it’s not exactly a short journey. People have to really want to see it and discover it. However, we can see why people do  – it’s a rare spectacle that we’ll find nowhere else.

14 Some people think it’s all fictional

Although many people like to believe the whole story of the Island of Dolls is true, many also believe it is all fictional. Some say Barrera was just a recluse that made up the story in his head and that it could have been a story he fabricated to explain his collection of dolls.

The fact is, we do not know what is true. Some of the visitors claim that the dolls have whispered to them or rolled their eyes. While others believe they only come alive at night. We guess it’s just always going to be one of those things that remain unknown.

13 Barrera isn’t so historical

He is said to have inhabited the island over 50 years ago, which may seem like a long time ago but according to sources, Barrera only passed away in 2001. Oddly enough, he passed away the same way the little girl did all those years back, in the same canal.

Who knows whether it was by accident or a deliberate act? Of course, the superstitious believe many things. It’s impossible not to find ourselves enthralled by this story and Barrera himself.

The Island of Dolls isn’t short of stories. Many people have their own theories of what happened with Barrera and the dolls. One tale was that Barrera had lost his sanity and believed the dolls were real children who he saved from the canal.

This sounds semi-believable but according to his family members, this is not the truth. His family members said Barrera was troubled by the girl’s spirit and just wanted to make her happy by hanging dolls for her everywhere. This is the original story and one we’d prefer to believe. It would be sad to think he went mad on the island.

11 Barrera's cousin now lives on the island

He and other family members have been residing on the island since Barrera's passing. Since he left us, the family have been taking care of the island and have turned it into a tourist attraction so people can come to visit. It is important for the family to keep Barrero’s spirit alive too and so they want to preserve the island for his sake.

People are of course fascinated by the story and want to see it for themselves, but it is important that tourists don’t damage anything or destroy the dolls. For that reason, the family intervened and now serve as the caretakers.

10 People say the dolls now watch over the island

It might be Barrera’s family taking care of the island and managing the visitors arriving, however, some people believe it is actually the dolls that truly own and watch over the island.

They think the dolls took over Barrera’s role as the caretaker of the island when he left. Then again, some people also think that the dolls could have been responsible for his passing. These are mysteries that are never going to get solved. Still, it is nice for people to have their own beliefs about the island and its inhabitants. It’s the mystery that enthralls us.

9 It feels like somebody is watching us

When photographer Sebastian Perez visited the Island of the Dolls, he had something pretty interesting comments to make. Like thousands of other people, he took the two-hour boat ride from his home in Mexico City to see the spooky site with his own eyes – and lens.

“The atmosphere on the island feels calm, peaceful and quiet,’’ said Perez. "After a while, it becomes anxiety and nerves, because with so many dolls around, you feel someone watching you. You cannot accurately describe the feelings when you are standing in the middle of all these dolls; nerves invade you as you approach each one.”

8 There’s a movie about the island

Well, it wouldn’t really make sense if they didn’t make a movie about it. Every interesting myth ends up becoming a movie. ‘’Island of the Dolls,’’ as it will be called, is going to be released this year. However, no specific date has been set. It’s not exactly about the story of Barrera, but it is going to be based around the island’s story.

Starring Isela Vega, Sara Cobo, and Paul Alayo, this looks like it could be an interesting movie. There was another movie with the same title back in 2016, but it doesn’t revolve around the island as much as it does on one specific doll.

7 They say the girl is still very much on the island

According to Barrera’s cousin Anastasio, the little girl’s presence is still very much alive on the island. We’re not exactly sure what he means by that, but it makes the whole story even more interesting.

Anastasio also holds some strong beliefs about the island and its dolls. “It’s important not to remove the dolls,’’ he says.

"At night, they come alive. They will move their heads and whisper to each other. It’s very spooky, but I have gotten used to it.”

We’re not sure how many of us would want to live on the island if we had the choice. Visit, maybe, but live there? Hmm…

6 It’s not for the faint-hearted

Of course, the island is popular amongst tourists for obvious reasons. People love the idea of this spooky island, which is why they’re happy to travel a while to get there. However, not everybody shares the same passion for the island. In fact, some visitors have left some pretty negative reviews on Trip Advisor.

Although for a lot of people this could be an incredibly memorable and thrilling day out, it’s not going to appeal to everyone’s interest. One woman visited the island with her 4-year-old daughter, unaware of the island’s tragic backstory. Naturally, she wasn’t impressed with how creepy it all was.

5 (Go Here Instead) Museo Dolores Olmedo will only inspire, not spook

If the idea of spending an hour or more with creepy looking dolls sounds too scary for you, there are lots of other places you can see in the city. Museo Dolores Olmedo is one of them.

This museum in Xochimilco has been open to the public since 1994, and is well-known for its artistic heritage. The site houses collections of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as well as the engravings of Angelina Beloff. Over 900 archaeological pieces can be found here. So for the faint-hearted unwilling to test their courage on the Island of Dolls, there is nothing scary about Museo Dolores Olmedo.

4 (Go Here Instead) Glide along Lake Xochimilco

Travelling two hours will take us to the Island of Dolls, but how about just going for a gentle glide along Lake Xochimilco? The canals date back to pre-Hispanic times and are indeed beautiful. They used to be part of a large canal system, but were declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.

We know most people only ride through the canals to visit the island, but there are still many tourists who just want to admire the canals themselves. There’s nothing quite like a canal ride on a Sunday morning – or evening – to wind down while stepping into nature.

3 (Go Here Instead) Visit one of the city’s most historic churches

When people think of Xochimilco, they think of canals and lakes. But it is so much more than that, even though that is a big part of what it is as a city.

For instance, Xochimilco is home to a historic church called San Bernardino de Siena. This 16th-century church includes a monastery, which was actually built above a former pre-Hispanic temple.

Not everybody is going to enjoy the Island of Dolls, but that doesn’t mean tourists are short of things to see while they’re in Xochimilco. This church is definitely a must-visit if you want to see a piece of history.

2 (Go Here Instead) Head to Xochimilco Market

This bustling, colourful market will lift your spirits in seconds. Not only is it full of amazing sights and smells, it’s also one of the cheapest places around. This is every tourist’s chance to start tasting local food.

Sometimes it’s just about following the local to find the best places. That’s when the magic happens. The market also sells fresh tacos, so if anyone wants to taste some authentic snacks, this is a good place to start. In fact, we can find a lot of tasty snacks besides fruit and vegetables at the market. It’s a must-visit for any foodie.

1 (Go Here Instead) Barbecue at Bosque de Nativitas Park

Located just south of Xochimilco Square, Bosque de Nativitas Park is 12.2 hectares with pine, ash and forest trees. For nature lovers, it’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon. Island of the Dolls might not be for you, but Bosque de Nativitas Park will.

It is an escape from the city and a chance to unwind in nature. Many people go horseback riding here which is available for visitors too. Barbecuing facilities are on site for anyone who fancies a nice afternoon picnic. One of the best ways to experience Xochimilco as a whole is just to walk around the city and explore.

References: isladelasmunecas.com, news.com.au, unusualplaces.org, huffingtonpost, express.co.uk,