5 mins

The curse of Mexico's Island of Dolls

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, tries to visit La Isla de la Munecas, a macabre island littered with mutilated dolls, but she is blocked at every turn. Is she cursed?

Boats to the Island of Dolls (Marie Javins)

I hadn't gotten a lot of sleep in Mexico City when the sound of a typewriter woke me up before seven. I was out of practice at sleeping in old budget hotels. I usually have to do it for several nights running before I stop wondering about how many people have slept on the old pillow or if there are bedbugs. When I’m tired enough and been doing it a while, I don't care if anything is going to nibble on my ankles. But I was a little out of practice after staying home for several months after my trip around the world.


What the heck? How long had it been since I'd heard a typewriter used in the wild? I speculated it was being used for filling in some form with printed "Fill in Here" blanks. My room was near the lobby and the hotel office.

I tried sleeping a while longer, but even when the typewriter went silent, I couldn't. I got up. I had to get out of the room early today anyway. I was going to attempt to visit the Island of the Dolls.

I'd spotted a blurb about Isla de las Muñecas in my guidebook, but it had said something about being hard to get to, so I'd quickly scrolled past it when I'd been browsing the Mexico City section of my guidebook. But then I'd been in the San Miguel de Allende town photography centre early last week and had met a woman named Jo Brenzo who'd created a book on her photos of this little island. She was running a photo trip to the island in a month, but I'd be gone by then.

Later that day, I'd read about the island and was intrigued. An island of decaying old dolls! That sounded nightmarish. Positively creepy. And also, like a total pain to get there. I’d have to take the Mexico City metro to the light rail to a short walk to a boat dock, where I had to then negotiate a pleasure-boat pilot into taking me to this island rather than on a mariachi-serenaded jaunt around the scenic canals.

I found some online accounts by people who had done this. But none of them were recent, and the official hourly rate for the punts had gone up since then – now it was 350 pesos an hour! And this would take a nebulous amount of hours. Some said four, some said as few as two. And those people who had pulled this off had not been going alone. They'd all had someone to split the bill with.

Still, I figured, I could go on down to the canals in Xochimilco and see if someone would take me for cheaper than the hourly rate, or maybe convince them to go straight there and back, with just a half-hour on the island. How long could that take? I committed to myself to spending no more than 500-600 pesos for this, and agreed with myself that if it ended up being a hundred dollars or close, I'd walk away. I only carried 700 pesos in my pocket to avoid the temptation of spending money I shouldn't spend.

I headed out of my room after a quick breakfast, leaving my "luggage" – which was just my collapsible supermarket bag with some clothes in it – at the front desk. I caught the metro all the way to the end of the line at Tasquena – enjoying the approach of the walking, talking dollar store en route as vendors peddled wares throughout the train cars, though I was a little puzzled by the oddity of people wandering through the cars blaring music from speakers around their necks, and selling CDs. At Tasquena, I followed the signs to the Tren Ligero, or light rail.

Now I hit a snag. All I wanted was two tickets, one to go and one to come back. But it didn't seem that singles were available. The ticket machines sold a minimum of 13 pesos worth. "But I only want two," I'd told the clerk. She'd shrugged.

I put a 20-peso note into the machine, then instead of a fare card, I'd gotten a flash of FAULT (or maybe falta), and then the machine spit out a receipt with the big word ERROR on it.

"You've got to be kidding me," I snarled at the inanimate object, as if it could respond. Then suddenly, a bright, young customer service agent was at my elbow.


I showed him my receipt. He took me to the ticket window, explained the situation, and the clerk nodded. She shoved a blank form out from under the glass.

A long blank form. With many boxes to check and explanations to fill in.

"No," I said. "No address. I am turista! No form. Turista!" Were they going to send 20 pesos to my home address in six weeks? I doubted that was going to work.

The ticket agent spoke to the customer service rep, who nodded and walked me to the turnstile. He had a quick word with the guard, who motioned me past the turnstile and handed my receipt back to me.

I was on. But I didn't even want to think about the return trip yet. Would I need to do a repeat performance on the other end?

Twenty minutes or so later, I got off the pokey tren ligero at the last stop along with most everyone else. Here I was in Xochimilco, embarkation point for the Island of the (decaying, broken) Dolls on the outskirts of Mexico City.

A sign outside the station pointed the way to the dock, or embarcadero. I followed it. After walking a few blocks, I came to a big arch leading to a dock area around a lagoon full of colourful party punts. This wasn't the embarcadero mentioned in guidebook, or even one of the two mentioned on the websites I'd been poring over.

A big sign announced, clearly, the official government rate of 350 pesos (USD 27) an hour. I speculated again on the number of hours this would take. At two, I’d be okay. At four, I didn’t really need to see broken dolls.

This isn't going to work, I thought. I could see that already. But here I was, so I started asking around.

"Cuánto es... una persona..." I pointed to myself. "Isla de las Muñecas y retorno?" "Retorno" probably wasn't the right word here. I should probably mention that I am usually faking any language skills I may pretend to have.

The boat pilot pointed to the official government rate sign.

"Tiempo?" I asked.

He held up four fingers. I shook my head. "Todas... mi..."  I motioned movement, took a few air photos, then motioned movement back. "Quatro?"

He nodded.

This wasn't going well. At $27 an hour for four hours, this was turning into an exercise in not-a-good-idea-ness.

"Porqueto boat?" Again, I was butchering the local language.

He shrugged a maybe. I walked around the lagoon, looking for a smaller boat.


All the boats were humongous punts for groups. Nothing small.


He motioned me to follow him. We walked across other boats to his boat.  He sat me down and told me to wait while he went to fetch something.

A minute later, the boatman returned with a faded board of photos. He was trying to sell me a tour.

He showed me photos of the canals, of floating mariachis, of all kinds of things I didn't want to see.

"Solo muñecas," I tried explaining.

Still four hours.

"Cuemanco?" I asked. He nodded. That could work, if I went to another embarcadero. He put me on a bus, which slowly wound through town. We passed Embarcadero Fernando Celaya, and I should have jumped off, but I thought the bus was taking me to Embarcadero Cuemanco.

Instead, the bus left me at a turn-off. I walked along for a while, expecting to see the dock. When it became apparent to me I'd walked for some time, I kept trying to sort out the spot on my map, but – groan – my Apple map didn't have Embarcadero Cuemanco on it, and my cell plan included free email and social networking, but not browsing. I couldn't get the Google map.

So I walked and turned and crossed a bridge and landed in a little canal-side community. I wandered there for a while, and at some point acknowledged to myself that not only was I lost, but I really needed to head back to Mexico City for the comic convention I was here for, if I wanted to get there before it was time for my homeward-bound bus.

Now my iPhone map was useful, as I found my way back to the main road. I hailed a taxi.

"Embarcadero Fernando Celaya, por favor," I said. I figured I might as well check while I was here, and that dock was walking distance from the tren ligero. 

The taxi took me back to town and dropped me at the pier. I asked the boatmen there about the time to Isla de las Muñecas.

One held up four fingers.

"From Cuemanco too?"

"It's all the same," he said. "You won't get shorter than four."

I sighed. It was time to give up.

I found my way back to the tren ligero, convinced a guard to let me through the turnstiles, got back on the metro, back to the center of town, and to Expo Reforma for the comic book convention, where I found my friend Richard, who I was here to visit with.

"Wait..." he said. "YOU gave up?"

We both laughed then. Richard has been along for the Marie-wanders-around ride all along, having provided the website for the 2001 MariesWorldTour.com. He's right. I don't give up.

But I clearly just had.

Maybe I’m getting lazier as I age. Or smarter, or poorer.

Or maybe I just know this about Mexico.

I’ll be back. And soon.

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