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A place scarier than any haunted house

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Legend has it a hermit witnessed a tragic accident where a little girl drowned in a canals near Mexico City; as a result, the island where the hermit lived is now known as one of the creepiest tourist attractions. It is called “La Isla de la Munecas”, "The Island of the Dolls."

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According to legend, in the 1950's Don Julian Santana Barerra denounced his family and life when he moved to live on a canal, called a chinampa, which is a floating platform secured to the canal bottom (originally built for agricultural use). The chinampa is located in the canals of Xochimico near Mexico City. Don Julian said he witnessed an accident in which a tourist girl fell into the canal and drowned. Julian claimed to see her ghost on the island; he told others in order to appease the spirit he began hanging dolls from the trees, bushes, and limbs on the island. He found the dolls in dumpsters and traded fruit for dolls. Sometimes the dolls would float up in the canal.

Julian continued hanging the dolls for over 25 years until he died. He drowned in the same canal where he claimed to have seen the little girl die. It was in April of 2001. Visitors to the island have continued to bring dolls to display.

There is an island caretaker, a relative of Don Julian. He shows visitors the shack in the middle of the island which contains a shrine to the dead girl, featuring Julian's favorite doll, Antonio. The caretaker explains trinkets and religious items are left by visitors in exchange for miracles.

Visitors, artists, and writers who visit the place report the island feels haunted, scary, or just downright creepy. It is not a tourist attraction, but a place built on tragedy -- and questions. Is the legend based on fact? Are the miracles truly granted? Is there such a thing as a ghost? The scarred and fixed expressions of the thousands of dolls will never tell.

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Credit: photo of Judith Yates