MEXICO CITY— Lake Xochimilco is perhaps best known for its green waterways filled with colorful boat rafts known as trajineras. It's where tourists eat and get drunk on tequila and mariachi music.
But in recent years the lake has become famous for a spookier reason: a mysterious island littered with broken dolls hanging from tree branches.
Legend has it that the island’s former owner, Julian Santana, started collecting plastic dolls from waterways and dumps in the 1950s to protect himself against the evil spirit of a young woman who had drowned. Old Julian was an odd dude, and his plan backfired when the dolls he was collecting became possessed and started talking to him. What happened next is unclear. Some claim Julian drowned himself. In any event, he left behind a haunted island of dolls—one that's become an international curiosity for intrepid travelers.
I decided to explore the island on a windy Thursday morning to learn more about this strange place where Mexican folklore meets Hollywood horror.
The wind blows across Lake Xochimilco as I hop onto a small canoe with a guide named Sergio. He's the master and commander of the lake where centuries ago the Aztecs laid the first foundations of Tenochtitlan after witnessing the prophetic sign of an eagle devouring a serpent, which today is immortalized on the Mexican flag.
Sergio pushes the raft into the open lake with a wooden pole. Around us, we see people practicing the ancient tradition of cultivating crops on chinampas, or floating gardens. Crows, herons and ducks cross our path as we get further from the mainland. Below us, the mythological axolotl or Mexican “water monster” lurks in the dark waters.
We finally reach the island and are greeted by a welcome sign reading: “Intruders will be hunted, disemboweled, and destroyed.”
Anastacio Santana, the 59-year-old nephew of old man Julian, is there to meet us. He lives off the island by farming lettuce and charging visitors $1.50 to tour the doll graveyard. I join a group of tourists who just stepped off a trajinera carrying a bottle of tequila.
The tour starts inside a shed packed with some of Don Santana's oldest and most precious dolls.
“My uncle died from a heart attack,” Santana says, in an effort to clarify the mystery surrounding his relative’s death. The dolls are not possessed, he insists. They bring good luck and spiritual protection to his family.
“This one performs miracles,” he says, pointing to a child-size doll in an altar at the center of the shed.
“That one with the hat is 63 years old, and was my uncle’s favorite. If they were evil, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Superstition runs deep through the generations of the Santana family.
The doll collection is bigger now than when Anastacio lived there. It's been growing as the island gains international fame. Santana says the island is particularly popular with Australian tourists, and has been visited by celebrities including Anthony Bourdain, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro and Lady Gaga.
As we leave the shed and gather under a tree, I ask Santana if he's ever witnessed anything paranormal during his life-long tenure as the island’s caretaker. “You can hear many women whispering at night, but you can’t really understand what they are saying,” he says.
“Neither can I,” a Mexican American tourist jokes as his wife rolls her eyes.
Then a girl in our group notices a small red stain on her hand. “Blood is dropping from the tree!” one of the tourists yells. I realize I, too, have a red stain on my left hand. I look up but only see wind rustling through the branches. I start feeling paranoid.
The more you look around, the crazier everything appears. Some of the dolls are wearing diapers, and there are barbies with missing limbs. Two identical white cats roam the premises, both with missing ears. One of them is bleeding.
Doll island is on its way to becoming another world-renowned Mexican horror legend, similar to the Chupacabras or La Llorona, a female specter that roams the streets at night crying for her children after drowning them in a river. The place has become so famous it's spawning copycats. Santana says some locals built a replica of the island closer to the mainland to make a buck.
I start feeling cold and decide it's time to leave. The group stays behind with Don Santana, sipping tequila and talking about Lady Gaga. I feel a weird sensation as I walk back to the canoe, and look over my shoulder to make sure the dolls aren't following me. Their lifeless faces stare back. Some don't have eyes.
I walk through the moss, trying not to step on the patches of bright orange cempazúchitl, Mexico's iconic flower of the dead.
As I pass the tree, I notice berries on the ground. I pick one up and accidentally squish it, staining my fingers with a crimson juice—because dolls don't really bleed. Right?
Editor's note: Rafael was last seen muttering to himself as he walked into Lake Xochimilco. Happy Halloween and Feliz Dia de los Muertos.