Once thriving spa, Epecuen drawing tourists to ghostly ruins

EPECUEN, Argentina (AP) — Cushioned by a soft silence ruffled only by occasional gusts of wind, tourists walk past rubble and metal shards lying in the streets of what was once the bustling resort of Villa Epecuen. Others photograph petrified trees dotting the apocalyptic scene.

The visitors stop to read signs pointing out where hotels and restaurants stood before the salty waters of Lake Epecuen broke through a protective embankment during a storm in 1985 and submerged the village for the next two decades.

Water finally drained away, leaving the ruins of the town, where rusted vehicles and skeletons of homes that were hastily abandoned offer reminders of what was a mecca of tourism for much of the 20th century.

People once came to relax and bathe in pools of salt water fed by the lake, which is about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of Buenos Aires. Now, the desolation is what is drawing a stream of Argentines, many of whom are beginning to get out again after a long struggle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Silvia Sabatelli and Teresa Videla were among the hundreds who came during the country’s Oct. 8-11 holiday to stroll through the bleak remains and observe the still, gray lake from the old municipal spa, where some destroyed pools can still be made out.

“It has a special energy. It is gloomy, but at the same time it is picturesque. This is history,” said Sabatelli, who was on her first outing since the pandemic hit Argentina in March 2020.

The spa town was started in 1921 to take advantage of the waters of Lake Epecuen, which has very high salinity and a high concentration of minerals that are used to treat rheumatological and skin conditions. The lower house of Argentina’s congress adopted a measure in 2019 that could declare the ruins a national historic site, though the Senate still must consider it.

Claudio González and Silvina Palacios walked along what was the main avenue of the town with their young daughter, Thais, examining the remains of a school, a bank and the dance halls that decades ago were filled with tourists.

Both said they felt a mixture of sadness and melancholy because “ending up like this is unthinkable.” Still, they were happy to be outdoors in a quiet place of unusual nature.

“The pandemic was a difficult time and little by little we are moving to normal, little by little we are going to get out,” said Palacios, who spent a lot of time locked up during the quarantine period.

Two students, Camila Molinari and Juan Toscanini, also were enjoying their visit.

“We were struck by the place of destruction and abandonment. It’s a scene you can’t see anywhere else,” the young man said while looking at the ghostly tower of the old Villa Epecuen slaughterhouse from 1937.