An adventure to Xochimilco’s Island of the Creepy Dolls on Day of the Dead
I planned my Mexico City trip to coincide with Halloween/Dia de los Muertos, as I’m a fan of spooky festivals (I have a costume box that gets quite a workout in October) and wanted to see the full range of spiritual, spirit-ful events that Mexico City had to offer. Knowing that there was an island that was guarded by decomposing dolls, and that it was somehow within Mexico City, that was clearly at the top of the list to see on Day of the Dead itself. What I found that while this was an amazing experience, it was not the easiest to get to. Let me walk you through my trip to Isla de las Muñecas, and how to do it better.
The Creepy Doll island is found within the neighborhood of Xochimilco, on the southeast edge of the District. There is a way to get there via public transit, but as our group was already at the Dolores Olmedo Museum to see the Diego and Frida artwork, it was a quick cab ride over to the docks, arriving at about 2:30pm.
While the docks were still full of trajineras (the brightly colored canal boats), we were told this was almost too late to visit the island. The tour is about 4 hours, as it’s further away than any of the other destinations offered by the trajinera ‘drivers.’ The island isn’t accessible after sunset, which was at about 6pm in late October. They asked if we’d prefer to do an hourly tour around the canals, but no. We were on a mission, and that mission was seeing creepy dolls at sunset. After getting nowhere negotiating down the price ($75, split between however members you have for the boat), the salesmen suggested that we might want to buy some food and beer to take with us. They clearly knew we were fans of drinking and boating. Other groups know this in advance and come prepared to have a fun party out on the water. But not us, so… we set that clock back another 30 minutes as we walked a half mile down the street to an ATM, then to a convenience store, then back to the docks. Now we were definitely pushing it, but the boat operators were not about to turn down a fare. And off we went!
A quick explainer detour: Mexico City was once covered in rivers and marshland. The land was slowly filled in over the centuries until it became the megalopolis it is now. Only a few areas, including Xochimilco, maintain their original watery terrain. The canals are now a popular spot for families and young people to go out for an afternoon or evening.
You’ll pass by floating mariachi bands, boats selling tamales, quesadillas, churros, and other sweets. The houses along the sides of the canals offer dockside dining as well as toilet access for a few pesos (smart thinking, as we found out later on after a couple of beers!). However, the kitchen boats and piers aren’t plentiful - you may need to search them out. So still bring your own snacks and beer, just in case.
The trip to the Island took about 90 minutes, traveling through locks, and makeshift ferry crossings. At a certain point we turned east and stopped seeing other boats, which lead to the feeling of ‘you don’t want to go down that road…’ Towards the end, our driver really had to push us through the weeds, for which we provided copious encouragement and one of our extra beers. We did wonder though, was going to a haunted island of Day of the Dead daring the spirits to make an appearance?
Eventually we got to the island, which is less ‘island’ and more ‘Tiny strip of land between marshes and farms that’s separated by a canal.’ On land, you’ll have to pay to bring a non-phone camera. You’ll also have to pay to use the toilet (about 20 pesos) The island itself had a couple of small huts, a makeshift kitchen offering quesadillas for sale, and a plethora of decaying dolls. There were about 3-4 other boats’ worth of people on the island with us, all of us enjoying the spooky atmosphere in the setting sunlight. The decaying dolls were strung up in the trees, along the huts, and along the edges of the land, creating a border.
There are a lot of stories about how the strung-up dolls came to be. Here is the story as the on-site tour guide explained it to us:
A farmer on that land became convinced that the ghost of a girl who had drowned nearby was haunting him. To keep her spirit at bay, he began collecting dolls that washed up near the island and strung them up as his protectors. He continued to collect dolls from him neighbors. As he gained a reputation, other people started sending him dolls. Even the newer ones he received were subject to the elements, weather them and giving all of them the creepy look they currently have. Years later, this farmer was found nearby, drowned, in a similar manner to the original girl…. She got to him at last!!!!
After about 30 minutes, our boat driver was insistent that we needed to leave, as the light was getting dim and we had a good 90 minute drive through dark waters back to the docks. This is why it’s good to leave earlier, as we wanted to stay on that tiny island much longer to explore. We did pick up some quesadillas for the return... ghosts make me hungry, apparently. The return voyage was lit only by a small light aboard the boat. The mosquitos, not active during the daylight, were now in full force. Make sure to bring bug spray with you! Our group was quiet in the darkness, absorbing the atmosphere and imagining the spirits. Eventually made it to the main canal, where it being a national holiday, we started to see a lot of other boats out for a nighttime party ride. I didn’t want to admit to the others, but I was glad to see them.
Eventually our trajinera made it back to the docks. We tipped our driver well and emerged tired, hungry, but satisfied with our day. We were worried about how to get a return taxi, as the docks are sort of in the middle of nowhere, but here the holiday again worked in our favor, and the nearby festival drew enough of a crowd to bring in the cabs. Still, if you’re not going on a popular night… maybe be prepared to call an uber. Our adventure continued as our cab couldn’t get all the way back to Coyoacan without running into the street carnival, but that’s a different adventure!