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Villa Epecuén: Atlantis of the Pampas

In its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, Villa Epecuén was one of the hottest domestic tourist destinations in Argentina. Porteños flocked to the small town 350 miles from Buenos Aires to bathe in its curative, salty waters. But in 1985 the lake that was responsible for the town's very existence would lead to its demise.

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Villa Epecuén was established in the 1920s on the shores of the lake of the same name. Lago Epecuén is, after the Dead Sea, the second saltiest body of water on the planet and the town's baths and spas used to draw in as many as 20,000 tourists a season. Villa Epecuén was able to support 280 businesses and a permanent population of 1,500. Life was good, until...

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In November 1985 the area received a particularly heavy rainstorm that caused a seiche (standing wave) in the lake. The seiche broke a dam and eventually burst through a retaining wall, flooding the lakeside streets. At first residents hope the waters would recede before any real damage was caused, but the devastation was slow, meticulous and inevitable.

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After 20 days, the town was completely submerged. Eighteen years later it was, incredibly, 30ft below the surface of the lake! This was not so much a flood as it was a seasonal lake expanding during a very wet period. And human intervention - all of the dams, dikes and levees - didn't help.

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Epecuén's residents moved to nearby Carhue, another lakeside village, and opened up new spas and hotels there. In 2009 the waters started finally to recede and, little by little, the ruins of the town were revealed. The corrosive salt water has wreaked havoc on concrete, steel and timber alike and there are no plans to rebuild the Villa. After all, the lake waters will rise again sometime...

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Even more compelling than the tragic story of town's short but eventful existence, and the haunting pictures of what remains, is the story of Villa Epecuén's last resident, Pablo Novak. Novak's story is beautifully told in the award-winning mini-documentary Pablo's Villa. Simply click on the image below to watch the film.

As a strange postscript to this story, I came across this mind-boggling video made by the world-renowned Scottish mountain biker Danny MacAskill. He uses the ruins of Epecuén (including the eerie matadero or abattoir) as the stage for a display of two-wheeled acrobatics that is quite unlike anything I've ever seen.  It just goes to man's trash heap is another man's playground. Watch and enjoy.

If all of this has inspired you to visit Villa Epecuén, you will be relievedd to know that such a trip is entirely possible...albeit time consuming. Buses complete the 8 hour journey from Buenos Aires to Carhue every day of the week, and from there it is a short taxi ride to Epecuén. Carhue has no airport and the trains which used to bring the tourists to Estacion Lago Epecuén have long since stopped running.

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Full credit for all of the photos used in this blog goes to Francisco Whelan on Flickr.

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