To the southwest of the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires, a small resort town called Villa Epecuen once sat peacefully. Known to attract those seeking the benefits of the area’s lake – a body known as Lago Epecuen – the town has since suffered a terrible fate. You see, torrential rains have sent the lake beyond its bounds. In recent years, though, nature has once again brought another change to Villa Epecuén.
The area of Carhué where Villa Epecuén is found is well watered, to the extent that its name translates as “green place” in the Mapuche language. It’s a region much loved by the native peoples, who once made use of the salty waters of Lago Epecuén for healing. The body of water was first noted by a Spanish explorer in 1770.
The native peoples have a story that explains the lake’s saltiness, which is very high. They explained that Levuche Indians discovered a child after a blaze in nearby woods. They dubbed him Epecuén, which in their language means “almost burnt.” Raised among his saviors, he grew up to become an impressive warrior.
Having won a battle with the Puelche people, Epecuén abducted Tripantu, the offspring of the chief of those whom Epecuén had been fighting. Tripantu was very taken with Epecuén, but after a month, he lost interest and started cavorting with other captives. With that, she shed so many tears because of her abandonment that the resulting lake was big enough to drown Epecuén.
Whatever the truth of that story, the area’s tribes considered the lake sacred. And over time, the European settlers of Argentina also started to notice the salty lagoon of Epecuén. In the late 1800s people came to the existing village and began to pitch tents. A transformation was underway for the little settlement.
The village began a new life as a tourist spot when it was officially founded on January 23, 1921. The settlement was known as Villa Epecuén, and it rapidly attracted visitors. They found it easy enough to get to the spa town because it already had a handy transport link to Buenos Aires.
Because of farming in the area, there was a railway track joining it to the nation’s capital. Now the trains that carried grain as freight from the area of Lago Epecuén to Buenos Aires would bring a different cargo back. Visitors – especially older Argentineans – came to test the healing properties of the lake.
Lago Epecuén is nothing particularly special to look at. Indeed, it’s just another lake in mountains that have plenty of them. But one thing that makes it very different is that it’s incredibly salty. Indeed, of the world’s waters, only the Dead Sea contains more salt, and its salinity outstrips that of any of the world’s oceans by ten times.
This salinity is perhaps boosted by the long droughts that the region suffers. Indeed, almost as soon as it was founded, the town of Villa Epecuén underwent a long period without rain. We’ll come back to look at how attempts that the local authorities made to help Villa Epecuén’s tourism thrive despite the drought brought catastrophe.
In any case, the saltiness of the lake had made it a center for therapy. Among the ailments that it’s said to cure are rheumatism, anemia, skin problems and depression. It’s even thought to be useful for those who have diabetes, so it was no surprise that it attracted wealthy tourists from Buenos Aires.
And the denizens of Buenos Aires weren’t alone, as they were joined by people from across the globe. The lake was particularly popular among Jewish people, who saw it as being similar to the Dead Sea. At its height, the village saw tens of thousands of visitors, with enough space in its hotels for 5,000 visitors.
By the 1970s the town itself housed in excess of 5,000 people. And not far off 300 different businesses operated there. These included not just hotels, but also spas, museums and shops. On top of that, some of the townspeople were employed by industry that took salt out of the water to use in making glass and drugs.
However, the drought meant that the lake evaporated some. The result was that the water’s edge retreated from the town and its hotels. So, the locals had to build long piers out into the lake and create trenches to bring its water close to the tourists. Sometimes, the tourists even rode in the wagons that the miners used to ship salt into town.
In the 1960s the local government shifted the focus of tourism to try to attract younger people. It built campsites and held music festivals. There was even a complex for swimming in the town. The shift worked. Soon, Villa Epecuén came to be seen as a fun destination for families as well as a health spa.
But the hoteliers didn’t want the reason for the town’s existence to disappear. They pushed for a means to keep the lake supplied with water. So, the government of the Buenos Aires province constructed the Ameghino Canal. This was a series of channels that connected the area’s lakes together and kept them all from running dry or flooding.
However, in 1976 Argentina underwent a coup d’état, which left no one in control of the canal. Rubén Besagonil, who once lived in Villa Epecuén, described the outcome to Argentine newspaper La Nacion in 2010. He said, “The tap was opened, but it was no longer closed.” This proved to be disastrous.
With no outlet, the lake swelled by 20 inches and more each year from 1980 onwards. As it crept upward, the water neared the top of the levee that had been put in to keep the town of Villa Epecuén safe. However, no one seemed to be much bothered. After all, the water was still not quite at the top of the wall.
But the period of drought had given way to a new era of heavy rains. On November 10, 1985, a massive downpour finally proved the final straw for the levee. It burst, and water started to flood into the town. Straight away, the water settled in Villa Epecuén, four feet deep.
It came as a shock to the locals, but they remained hopeful. They thought that the water would drain back once the rain had passed. So, they climbed onto the tops of their homes and waited it out. But the water did not recede, and a couple of days after the lake had broken its banks, the town was predominately abandoned.
Indeed, far from receding, the water continued to rise. Each hour, it went up by close to half an inch. This carried on for a fortnight after the levee broke; the town was now under enough water to submerge a human being. What had only shortly before been a thriving tourist town had become deserted, sinking ever further beneath the waters.
One of the people who had lived in Villa Epecuén was Norma Berg, who in 2013 told U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail that she had lost her pets in the flood. She said, “I had a bunch of cats and dogs, and they ran away a couple days before the flood and I never saw them again. I think my pets could feel that the water was coming.”
With only a single exception, the people of Villa Epecuén fled. Most went to live in nearby Carhué, a small town no more than eight miles away. They had to give up their businesses and homes, dragging what they could away using tractors and trucks. In a flash, their existence had changed forever.
Devastated, the people of Villa Epecuén had to get their lives back together. Most sued the government of the province. Some had to settle for only half of what they had lost. Those who could afford to keep up the action against the authorities eventually got back their losses – but not for another 15 years.
Another of those who had to leave shared the story with La Nacion. Ricardo Zappia told the newspaper, “We were left without money, without a house and without work. It was very difficult. You feel sadness and helplessness because it could have been avoided.” Curiously, he had been able to revisit the hotel that he had lost.
That was because in 2009 the pattern of the weather changed. Once more, Villa Epecuén started to see prolonged dry spells, and at long last the water levels began to drop. Indeed, they did so rapidly; so much so, in fact, that the town rose from the waters. These days it’s no longer submerged at all.
When photographer Federico Peretti visited the town in 2011, he was able to stay in the old slaughterhouse, a massive building in the town. Unsurprisingly, given that it had lain for more than two decades in a salt bath, he noted in a piece for Vice that it had a strong scent of the sea. So did the rest of the town, but it was no longer a home for fish. Indeed, Peretti shared the slaughterhouse with pigeons.
Although at that time, most of the town had emerged from the sea, Lago Epecuén was still a constant presence. The photographer could hear it slapping against the street nearby. Peretti described the sound of the gently breaking waves as “disorientating.” And the road that sat outside the slaughterhouse soon disappeared into the water.
Outside were trees that had died. To Peretti, they seemed as though they’d died in a fire and not from drowning. The roots of the trees sat in knots a yard above the land. The photographer described the weirdness of the trees being still set out in the straight rows that they had been planted in.
After all this time, remnants of life had survived. Littering the trees were such things as signposts, beds, crockery and glassware. Here and there, bottles that had once held soda poked out of what had, until recently, been the lakebed. To Peretti it looked somewhat similar to how he imagined the ocean floor must look.
If one was to walk through the avenues of trees, one could come across abandoned hotels. The ruin is accessible on foot – or it was when La Nacion visited in 2010. But the floor is treacherous, riven with cracks made by roots. Bricks have tumbled out of the walls. These ruined hotels are streaked with salt.
Indeed, the whole town presents the eerie sight of salt-covered ruins. Houses have collapsed, and ironwork has rusted. In one place, a flight of stairs leads up to nothing at all. But in others, all that is left is rubble and mud, giving way to water that still conceals some of the town’s outskirts.
According to Peretti, few people in Argentina’s capital knew about Villa Epecuén. It was nevertheless featured as the backdrop for music videos and sometimes popped up as a “… and finally” on the news. The widest exposure that it received was in a documentary about the only person who didn’t leave.
That person is Pablo Novak, an elderly man when Peretti encountered him. Not only did he not leave with the others when they went to Carhué, but he was still there when the photographer visited. Novak eked out a meager living in his hut of stone, furnished with a hob and a fridge and decorated with calendars.
One might imagine it a lonely life to be the last survivor of Villa Epecuén’s population, but Novak had no complaints. He told the Daily Mail, “I am okay here. I am just alone. I read the newspaper. And I always think of the town’s golden days.” He kept busy by taking long cycle rides through the remnants of the town.
Novak is not always alone. Sometimes, scavengers creep around the ruined town. What they hope to find isn’t clear, given that it’s a place of ghosts and rot. But they’re able to sneak around the ruins and steal whatever they can discover because the writ of the law no longer extends to Villa Epecuén.
Although no one felt that the town was worth rebuilding, it’s still a place for tourists to visit once more. Not that it’s straightforward to go there, given that the town lies at the end of many miles of country lanes. Indeed, to drive the 340 miles from Buenos Aires would take you six hours minimum.
However, people do come by, as Novak explained to the Daily Mail. He told the newspaper, “Whoever passes nearby cannot go without coming to visit here. It’s getting more people to the area, as they come to see the ruins.” And the hope is that the ruins will lure tourists, just as Villa Epecuén used to.
That’s because a lot of the people who went to Carhué set up in the same kind of business, so that now it, too, can offer the full suite of services connected with the salty lake. Javier Andres is the director of tourism for the area. And he told the Daily Mail, “Not only do we have Epecuen with the ruins and its natural wealth, but we also can increasingly offer other alternatives.”
And tourists are not the only visitors. As well as the music videos that we mentioned earlier, the town has “starred” in a movie. When Marcos Efron shot the thriller And Soon The Darkness in 2010 – starring Amber Heard and Karl Urban – Villa Epecuén was the ideal setting for the spooky action.
Now the waters have receded, and the town is once again a tourist destination. But if no one fixes the problem with the lake, who knows what will happen when the weather pattern changes again and Villa Epecuén is once more beset with heavy rains. Perhaps the town will once more vanish beneath the surface of its salty waters?