I’ve been witness to some deliciously strange things in my travels abroad.
At the border crossing between North and South Korea, a man in a giant bear costume leaps about, shouting, “Welcome to North Korea!”
In a hostel dorm room in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, an Italian Acidhead dressed in pink briefs and a blonde wig blasts Britney Spears on a boom box, babbling horrifying nonsense and shoving a filthy stuffed toy dog in my face.
In El Salvador, a band of traveling gypsies erects a patchwork tent at the edge of town and puts on a ragtag circus.
In The Czech Republic one wintry twilight, I make my way out into the country to visit a church built from human bones. For luck, I toss a coin into a pit of human skulls and make a wish – and the coin promptly bounces off a skull and back out of the pit and lands on the inch-wide ledge right before me.
Every traveler is party to these occasionally bizarre and disorienting encounters, all of which fall beneath the broad umbrella of Weirdass Shit. Let’s face it: The world is big and old and probably haunted as all hell.
At the outer reaches of Mexico City, however, secreted away among a dense series of isolated canals, sits an island that renders all of those Tiny Horrors moot: La Isla de las Munecas.
The Island of the Dolls.
It’s a simple homestead teetering precariously atop a modest spit of land, and its only resident is a man named Chupe. He lives there alone among a few crumbling cabanas, a massive population of black and yellow centipedes, and thousands upon thousands of discarded dolls. Barbie dolls. Wind-up talkie dolls. Clowns. Life-sized dolls. Corn-cob dolls. Stuffed dolls. Headless dolls, disembodied doll torsos, strug up by bits of twine and rope to trees and stakes and cabana walls and many encased in thick spider web.
Chupe survives on the modest income he earns growing and selling lettuce, plus donations from those who trek out to the island, and he is by all appearances quite ill.
He is the nephew of a dead man called Don Julian – the mastermind behind the dolls.
We hired a local guy to row us out to the Isla earlier this week for an outrageous sum. Traveling down those canals felt a bit like traveling back in time. Prehistoric birds fluttering all around, small men in low-slung canoes cutting through the water at incredible speeds, and silence – golden after a week in DF.
At the dock of the island, Chupe met us dressed in a tattered straw hat and a ratty plaid shirt. He greeted us, asked for 20 pesos, and took us to a small shrine. We sat, and he offered a brief history of the island, punctuated by a rattling cough.
Decades ago, Chupe says, a little girl drowned near the swamp island where his Uncle Don Julian lived. Don Julian discovered her body and was traumatized by the experience. So he appeased his terror by outfitting his patch of property with every manner of doll he could find. He saw them as talismans that might envelop the island with magical protection – safeguarding future children from the same unhappy fate. Over years, the curious and the brave have arrived to gaze upon his masterwork, and they’ve contributed dolls of their own to the collection.
A decade or so back, Don Julian himself drowned in the very same spot where he’d discovered the little girl, and Chupe opted to carry on the work.
There are whispered rumors of sorcery on the island, and some say that Don Julian was a curandero, or witch doctor – no small accusation in a Catholic country – but Chupe vehemently denies these accusations.
“Do you feel secure living here?” I asked him.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I feel that the dolls protect me.”
Then he disappeared into an outbuilding and we wandered around the island, snapping photos and dodging centipedes.
Today, La Isla de las Munecas functions as a living museum, and a testament to one man’s grief.
Guests remain scarce, as finding the island at all requires an hours-long trek out of town by way of metro, lightrail train, taxi, foot and boat. If you ask me really nice, I might offer a few more details. For now, though, behold! La Isla De Las Munecas.