Villa Epecuen, known as the most exclusive tourist village in Argentina, was located some 370 miles (595 km) away from the Capital City of Buenos Aires, near the border with La Pampa, within the vast Pampas grassland. According to local legend, the Lake Epecuen, which means almost burnt, was formed by the tears of an Indian Chief whose intense sadness at the loss of his lady love created the salty lake. Following a formal assessment of the components of the lake water in 1909 and the subsequent endorsement of the health professionals, Villa Epecuen started to grow as one of the trendiest destinations in the country, with the foundation of the first resort on its shore in 1921.
Although most of the tourists were Jewish tourists from Buenos Aires in its formative years, soon the salty water of the lake, second only to the Dead Sea in salt content, made it popular among others. Gradually, growing numbers of visitors started to flock to take baths in the mineral-rich water of the lake, and its restorative properties were marketed as miraculous to treat a range of ailments which include rheumatism, different skin diseases, depression, and even diabetes.
Tourism in Villa Epecuen was further boosted with the inauguration of the Epecuen Railway Station in 1972, when the Domingo Faustino Sarmiento Railways, one of the six state-owned Argentine railways, started train service from Buenos Aires to connect the resort to the capital city. To bank the railway connection, the officials started to invest a lot of money and effort to create more luxurious hotels and lodges with modern amenities in Villa Epecuen, to further promote the town as the most attractive resort for the affluent and advocating it as the perfect vacation spot, especially among the rich. As a result, in the late ’70s, Villa Epecuén had around 280 business houses, which included hotels, lodges, guest houses, even a hippodrome, and a wide range of stores that served around 25,000 tourists who visited in the summer months between November and March each year. During that time, the town reached a population of 1,500 inhabitants.
However, the golden days of Villa Epecuen did not last long as a rare weather pattern developed over the area, and in early November 1985, it started to rain heavily. Added to it, gusty winds made the otherwise calm water of the lake turbulent. An embankment constructed in 1978 to protect the town was finally breached on 10 November, and the tide of water shoved its way through the dike. Although the water was rising slowly, at a rate of half an inch per hour, the wall completely collapsed after two weeks, and the locals were evacuated, leaving the town abandoned. The devastating flood slowly but steadily devoured the entire village, submerging it under more than 30 feet (9 m) of salty water, while 289 business houses and countless personal houses disappeared from the face of the world, making it a modern tale of the lost Atlantis.
Villa Epecuen remained completely under the surface for long twenty five years until the cruel and the unruly saline water receded, revealing the skeleton of a once prosperous and luxurious resort reduced to heaps of crumbling rubbles. As it was deemed a disaster area, no incentive was offered to rebuild the resort, and it remained as an eerie ghost town, an apocalyptic landscape caked in a thick and white layer of salt. The said to be miraculous saltwater with magnificent healing power had ravaged everything in sight.
Today, walking down the once bustling main arteries of Villa Epecuen imparts a surreal sensation in the heart. The eerily quiet pot-holed streets are now flanked by rows and rows of calcified trees with their lifeless branches clearly tainted by the tidemarks, dilapidated and crumbling buildings of hotels and lodges are surrounded by rusty cars and unwanted wild vegetations. While the useless concrete slides still stand near the still water of the once-crowded swimming pool complex, swing frames in rusted rigor mortis also stand in a desolate playground against a diluted blue sky. However, the imposing building of the slaughterhouse, created by the reputed Argentine architect Francisco Salamone, is one of the few buildings of Villa Epecuen that still stands at the entrance of the town. The structure which was once the railway station, now houses a museum covering the history of the town, displaying some of the rescued items like record players, llama-wool sweaters, and others.
Even after 30 years of the disaster, none of the evacuated 1500 permanent residents returned to Villa Epecuen, except the 88-year-old Pablo Novak, who was born there and was forced to leave the town in 1985, but subsequently returned to his home in 2009 and has been living there. Although nobody died due to the flooding, the related panic eventually created a tremendous psychological impact, especially among older people, who struggled throughout the rest of their lives to adapt to the reality of their circumstances.
The Lake Epecuen has, in the meantime, recovered its mineral concentration, and the lake water is currently ten times saltier than the sea. Villa Epecuen is still visited by people, especially by sports enthusiasts and photographers, from all over the world.