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The Mysterious Underwater Ghost Town of Argentina

Nature is undeniably a beauty, but it can also be an insatiable, ferocious beast. It is ever lurking at the fringes of our seemingly safe civilization and cities, just out past where our illusory wall of safety ends and coiled to pounce at any time. Mankind’s structures, buildings, even whole cities or civilizations can be swallowed up and wiped off of the face of the earth as nature inexorably moves in to satisfy its ravenous hunger as we stand by powerless to stop it. Tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, sinkholes, even the slow, creeping strangulation of advancing jungle can serve to render our legacy to ruin, or erase all signs that we were ever even there at all. However, sometimes nature does not keep what it has taken forever, but rather gives it back after decades or even centuries; regurgitating forth the jumbled remains of what it has devoured. One such case is a town in Argentina which was once the very epitome of the good life, only to be wiped off the map for decades before being revealed once again as a haunting, eviscerated ghost of its former self.

Villa Epecuén in its heyday

Villa Epecuén in its heyday

In the country of Argentina, around 570 kilometers out from Buenos Aires, along the shores of Lago Epecuén, is a now forgotten, almost accursed place. Here is a lake with unusual properties; a saline level 10 time higher than sea water, second in its saltiness only to the Dead Sea in Israel, and which has long been said to be imbued with various therapeutic qualities, such as the ability to staunch the effects of aging, as well as cure depression, rheumatism, various skin conditions and diseases, anemia, diabetes, and an assortment of other ailments including even serious diseases such as cancer. Even the name of the lake, Epecuén, means “eternal spring,” a testament to the legendary attributes linked to it. The rumored origins of the lake reflected this power; as it is said that the lake had been formed when a chief shed tears in mourning over a lost lover. It was this profound belief that the lake could cure numerous diseases and ailments that caused an intense interest in developing it as a resort area, and a bustling tourist resort would be erected here in the 1920s.

Villa Epecuén, as it was called at the time, was a resort unlike any other in the country in those days. It was a lavish affair, with no expense spared to build luxurious accommodations and draw in numerous businesses, guesthouses, and hotels, to the tune of an estimated 25,000 visitors per season and a permanent peak population of around 5,000 people in the 1970s, all living in opulent luxury and basking in the sun with terrific views of the serene lake. At its peak in the 1960s, Villa Epecuén was home to over 300 businesses catering to the influx of wealthy visitors from around the country, such as hotels, guesthouses, lodges, shops, restaurants, beauty salons, and other resort facilities, all nestled within the rugged beauty along the lake’s placid shores.The rich were drawn here in droves by the majestic scenery, top-notch facilities, and the purported therapeutic healing effects of Lago Epecuén’s water. So potent were the purported healing and youth enhancing properties of this place that it was heavily mined for its minerals and sulphates, which were then wrapped, packaged and sold at exorbitant prices.

Villa Epecuén now

Villa Epecuén now

It seemed to be a place almost too good to be true, but there was danger lurking under the veneer of this grand paradise, ever silently threatening it from beyond the eyes of the flocking tourists. A key element in ensuring that this prosperous resort continued to function was a shoddy, rocky dam located a short distance away, which kept the waters from inundating the town and its many visitors, who vacationed unaware that they were doing so under the shadow of the threat of being wiped out by a flood should the dam fail. This lurking threat was usually just under the surface, and would not make itself apparent until the area underwent a period of heavier than usual rainfall, which caused the water levels of the lake to start creeping up year by year.

For years the dam held steady, groaning under the weight of the inexorable rise of the water, until on November 10th, 1985, when a freak standing wave, known as a seiche, sprung up from the lake like a monster to ferociously smash into the dam and finally cause it to buckle under the strain it had been dutifully accruing for so long. So began a creeping, unstoppable surge of water that spread out to begin slowly swallowing the resort town. Many of these people retreated to the nearby lakeside resort town of Carhue as the water hungrily reached for them. The threat was slow moving, allowing the people of Villa Epecuén to gather their things and evacuate as the water reached up further and further around them, but there was nothing they could do to save their livelihoods and homes. There was time to say their goodbyes to their luxurious life, yet the surging flood would not relent as it slowly devoured the town, eventually burying it under 10 meters (33 feet) of murky, briny water.

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Villa Epecuén

From the surface it appeared as if the one bustling resort town had completely vanished from the face of the earth; erased from existence as if it had never been there at all. However, down in the murky depths Villa Epecuén remained totally intact, still eerily inviting and pristine, complete with fully furnished dwellings, cars parked along streets, and even lush gardens and trees, as if someone would come home at any moment, yet there was just silence and the sweeping currents of water weaving through the abandoned, submerged ghost town and the swaying leaves of its suffocating, dying trees. Thus began the town’s slow transformation as it was digested by the lake itself. The corrosive salt water began to go to work on the structures here, relentlessly eating away at metal and wood, peeling paint, rusting away and defacing everything it embraced. The once gorgeous town began to dissolve into a twisted, rusted out shell of its former glory, all of its life sucked out of it to leave a mere hollow husk. The once attractive buildings now became something akin to hulking, spined sea beasts rummaging about through the muck and silt; wild, feral things metamorpized and much different to what they had been born.

For nearly 20 years this ghost town was rather like the legendary Atlantis, lurking deep down beneath the waves, until when in 2009 unusually dry weather caused the lake to gradually shrink and recede. Little by little, the scarred, ruined skeletal remains of the once flourishing resort town began to come up from the depths gasping for air. As the water gradually released its cold grip on the town, these ruins which had lain shrouded in darkness and murk for decades began to poke forth from the brine, and it was apparent that this was not the place it once had been. The ghastly visage of the emerging ghost town was as if the whole place had been whisked away to some parallel dimension of rampant entropy, only to phase back into our reality something less than and unrecognizable to what it had been in its past life.

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The trees which had dotted the area and once been so vibrant were now long dead trunks and withered husks, with lifeless spidery limbs still reaching for the sunlight which had never come. Ruined, rusted out furniture and crumbling, decrepit structural components corroded, defiled, and bleached by salt jutted and poked from the thick stench of decay as if spikes of some dying sea creature still making its last stand against some alien threat. Long abandoned automobiles still lined the streets, but they were now feral apparitions, half dissolved and caked with salt, less like the cars we know and more like the carcasses of some sort of sea monsters that had remained ensconced and fossilized within the ocean for aeons. The once opulent resort was now a degraded, chaotic mess of haphazardly strewn concrete rubble and the desolate, cast off detritus of a forgotten age. This was like some salt-caked, inhospitable post-apocalyptic world that had been consumed by nature and vomited back into our realm in an obscene, jagged semblance of itself. To walk along these bleak, eerie streets and their rotted relics bent to the wrath of nature now is to walk along what may very well be a vision of what Hell might be like.

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When the lost town of Villa Epecuén lurched back up out of the depths to drink in sunlight once more, it was deemed to be beyond salvation or repair. This was a wild place which had seemingly forsaken the world of the living, and which would likely never be tamed or brought back from the limbo it existed in. The area was labelled a disaster zone, and only a very few stalwart, brave souls were willing to come trickling back in to sift through the ruin that nature had seen fit to leave behind. One 82-year-old former resident by the name of Pablo Novak even came back to try and rekindle a new life amidst the deteriorated skeleton of this once great town, and currently remains the sole inhabitant here, offering to show the vestiges of the once venerable resort to whatever curious soul or macabre thrill seeker happens to wander in. He remains alone, the only ones to join him those who wish to just pass through, gaze at the macabre scene, and leave.

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For now, Villa Epecuén remains mostly deserted. The town is a snapshot of a time long gone, warped by time, like the twisted remains of some fossilized prehistoric beast or a photograph ruined enough by the ages to warp the image and hide its true appearance. One can walk among these streets and feel that there was once life thriving here and thrumming through its veins, but that this essence has long ago been leeched out, leaving in its place a bleak alien landscape that has little in common with its past life. The town has been resurrected in a sense with its unveiling to the outside world once again, but it is not and never will regain the vibrance it had in life. This is a dead place of salt, wind, and desolation.

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The story of Villa Epecuén could be considered a cautionary tale. It is a testament to the frightening power of nature to take from us at any time, to wipe out all vestiges of human development, and to occasionally eerily resurrect what it has taken like a zombie, as a reminder of its awesome might, no matter how superior and invincible we may think we are. There is not much we can do to ward off the specter of nature’s wrath, which remains ever present and gently lapping at the edges of our society like a dark sea in which a storm brews somewhere ready to whip it into a destructive maelstrom; a sleeping beautiful beast. As we have seen with Villa Epecuén, sunny weather, prestige, throngs of tourists, money, and power are no protection at all. These are just illusions we hold close to keep our minds off of how powerless we really are. We can only remain prepared and vigilant, not fall into complacency, and hope that that dark sea lapping at our shores will remain calm, that the storm over the horizon will never come, and that the hungry beast will not awaken.