Villa Epecuén, one of Argentina‘s most popular spa towns, turned into a ghost town spending almost a quarter-century underwater. Flooded in the 1980s, the submerged town finally began to be revealed by drought in 2009. The town now forms a rustic and washed out landscape.
Epecuén is 570km southwest within the province of Buenos Aires, and was once a bustling tourist destination. Visitors would come to the scenic resort and bathe in Lake Epecuén, which many believed the lake held remedial value due to its high salinity levels. The myth has it that Lake Epecuén, which means “almost burnt” in the Levuche language, was created by the tears of an Indian leader who was profoundly sad at the loss of his beloved, which in turn formed the salty lake.
The town was mined for its invaluable minerals, used both in the production of glass and for medicinal purposes in the early 1900s. To experience the benefits of a thermal bath in their own homes, sulphates were on sale in the capital. The first resort on the shores of Villa Epecuén was led to the foundation in 1921, by a lawful evaluation of the water’s components in 1909, and approval by Argentine health professionals.
In the 1930s, it was the second-most salinated body of water in the world and similarly, many Jewish tourists visited from Buenos Aires, drawn by the lake’s uncanny similarities to the Dead Sea.
In the 1970s, Villa Epecuén sheltered 5,000 residents and 300 markets. The town is known for its mineral-rich waters, Lake Epecuén. An accelerating amount of visitors thronged to bathe in it. It was believed to have healing properties and were used to treat ailments like rheumatism, skin conditions and even diabetes. With the inauguration of Epecuén’s station in 1972, at its zenith, Villa Epecuén had a tourism boom visited by up to 20,000 tourists each summer.
In 1980, Villa Epecuén witnessed an increasing rainfall. Later on 10 November 1985, after years of heavy rainfall, the water level rose dangerously and broke its banks. A purpose-built embankment constructed in 1978 to protect Villa Epecuén was finally breached. The course of water proved indomitable, rising a centimetre each hour. Just two weeks later, it was three metres deep.
Submerged Villa Epecuén was 10 metres deep by 1993. The town remained under some 33 feet of water for almost 25 years. In the 2000s, a twist in climate patterns caused more parched seasons to Villa Epecuen, and finally, the floodwaters started to subside. A distant change caused drought to the area and further, it exposed the crumbled remains of a once-bustling tourist resort. The damp climate later reversed, and the waters started to recede in 2009.
The high-salinity water had left both man-made structures and petrified trees decayed and whitened out layers of salt. The resorts and ornately furnished lakeside structures have been degraded to all but obscure component forms, while the territory has been wiped out underneath tree roots.
One of the few buildings still standing is a sumptuous monumental slaughterhouse built by Argentine architect Francisco Salamone stands at the entry of Villa Epecuén. A museum covering the town’s history is situated in the former train station and exhibits salvaged items such as record players, ponchos and llama-wool jumpers.
The apocalyptic landscape is an unreal experience to walk down the lanes of the town- swarming avenues now frighteningly quiet. The rusted swing frameworks stand in a deserted yard, the concrete staircase leading to nowhere and the repetitive concrete slide bow in solemn homage to the still waters of the once-bustling swimming pool complex.
After over three decades have passed, many of Villa Epecuén’s surviving residents never overcome the trauma of the loss experienced in such a short period, which they assumed to be temporary then. The flood resulted in zero death as a direct impact of the flooding. The psychological impact was harsh among the elderly residents who found it hard to shift and adapt to their new circumstances. Eventually, many left the territory and never returned.
Although many residents were forced to seek refuge in the nearby town called Carhué. Now, Carhué has gradually reconstructed its stature as a spa break destination with healing thermal water from Epecuén, frequently transported to hotels in the area. By recovering its mineral concentration in the process, the lake is ten times saltier than the sea.
Villa Epecuén is now largely abandoned and has a small number of visitors visiting around the ruins of the city. The local government now protects the town, and there has been an initiative to build an ecological beach resort on its shores. A resort was inaugurated a few years ago, where all the amenities are charged by solar panels.
Only one of the town’s residents who remains living on the edge of his submerged home town is 91-year-old Pablo Novak, famously known for the film, Pablo’s Villa. Novak welcomes inquisitive tourists who come to visit Villa Epecuén and presents tours of the town’s striking ruins of the once greatest spa town.
Taylor, A., 2021. The Ruins of Villa Epecuen. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/07/the-ruins-of-villa-epecuen/100110/> [Accessed 4 July 2021].
The Independent. 2021. Villa Epecuén, Argentina’s ghost town. [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/villa-epecuen-argentina-s-ghost-town-a6739341.html> [Accessed 4 July 2021].
Vimeo. 2021. Pablo’s Villa. [online] Available at: <https://vimeo.com/88706281> [Accessed 4 July 2021].