Epecuen was once a bustling little lakeside resort, where 1,500 people served 20,000 tourists a season. During Argentina’s golden age, the same trains that carried grain to the outside world brought visitors from the capital to relax in Epecuen’s saltwater baths and spas.
The saltwater lake was particularly attractive because it has 10 times more salt than the ocean, making the water buoyant. Tourists, especially people from Buenos Aires’ large Jewish community, enjoyed floating in water that reminded them of the Dead Sea in the Middle East.
Then a particularly heavy rainstorm followed a series of wet winters, and the lake overflowed its banks on Nov. 10, 1985. Water burst through a retaining wall and spilled into the lakeside streets. People fled with what they could, and within days their homes were submerged under nearly 10 meters (33 feet) of corrosive saltwater.
Now the water has mostly receded, exposing what looks like a scene from a movie about the end of the world. The town hasn’t been rebuilt, but it has become a tourist destination once again, for people willing to drive at least six hours from Buenos Aires to get here, along 340 miles (550 kilometers) of narrow country roads.
People come to see the rusted hulks of automobiles and furniture, crumbled homes and broken appliances. They climb staircases that lead nowhere, and wander through a graveyard where the water toppled headstones and exposed tombs to the elements.
It’s a bizarre, post-apocalyptic landscape that captures a traumatic moment in time.
One man refused to leave. Pablo Novak, now 82, still lives on the edge of the town, welcoming people who wander into the wrecked streets.
“Whoever passes nearby cannot go without coming to visit here,” Novak said while showing The Associated Press around. “It’s getting more people to the area, as they come to see the ruins.”
Many residents of Epecuen fled to nearby Carhue, another lakeside town, and built new hotels and spas, promising relaxing getaways featuring saltwater and mud facials.
“Not only do we have Epecuen with the ruins and its natural wealth, but we also can increasingly offer other alternatives,” said Javier Andres, the local tourism director.