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The Underwater Tourist Town

I don't believe that ghosts exist, but if they did, they'd live in Villa Epecuen. A dam bust in 1985 burying Villa Epecuen--home to some 5,000 people--beneath floodwater.
August 18, 2011, 12:00am

I don't believe that ghosts exist, but if they did, they'd live in Villa Epecuen. The place was born in the 1920s as a tourist town on the banks of a salt lake a few hundred miles south of Buenos Aires. After several decades spent entertaining vacationers from the Argentine capital, a dam bust in 1985 buried Villa Epecuen—by then home to some 5,000 people—beneath floodwater.

A couple of years ago, though, something in the climate changed, and the town began to re-emerge. After learning about the place in a documentary, I decided to check it out. I took my camera along and ended up staying in an old slaughterhouse that had spent the last 25 years underwater. The building, like everything else in Villa Epecuen, smelled like the sea.

There were all sorts of strange noises during the night because my slaughterhouse is now home to thousands of roosting pigeons. It was disorientating to hear the edges of the lake lapping against the path not far from where we slept. The tarmac road outside vanished into sea.

The place is full of dead trees, which all looked as if they had been burnt rather than drowned. Their dried-out roots were all knotted about a meter above ground. There's something unnerving about the way the trees are still organized into neat lines.

I don't know how they survived, or why they weren't washed away, but scattered amongst the trees were little signs of the long gone tourists. Beds, Coke bottles, plates, glasses, number plates, and signposts. I guess this is a bit like what the bottom of the ocean looks like. Pretty depressing, huh?

I met a guy in Villa Epecuen named Pablo Novak, who's the only person still living in the town. When the floods came in '85, most people moved to the nearest city, Carhué, and never came back, with the exception of Pablo. He lives in a stone hut with a fridge, a hob, and various calendars hanging on the walls. I'm not sure who you pay rent to when you live in a property like that.

Pablo Novak, via Flickr

Pablo's place is located in what, before the accident, would have been the suburbs of the tourist town. He told me that it took people by surprise, and that at first everyone waited on the roofs of their houses, imagining that the water would fall back. Obviously it didn't, and within two days of the initial flood surge the town was near-empty.

Pablo seemed to really miss the old town, and talked a lot about its glory days in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when it seriously rivaled Mar del Plata for the affections of city tourists. There aren't many people in Buenos Aires who know about Villa Epecuen now, though it's been used in a couple of music videos and appears occasionally on the news as a curiosity item.

The people in Carhué told us that because Villa Epecuen isn't protected by law, people often went there to scavenge things. I'm not entirely sure what you'd get from looting this place, though. It's beautiful, but literally rotting and creepy as hell.