Lago Epecuén: The Lake That Drowned A Thriving Tourist Village

An avenue of eerie drowned trees

“I don’t believe that ghosts exist, but if they did, they’d live in Villa Epecuén,” writes photographer Federico Peretti in an article for Vice magazine. These images he took of the ruined tourist village capture gnarled tree branches that resemble sinister hands, old cars rusting away like giant carcasses and the crumbling remains of drowned houses.

A street that was once underwater.

Located about 372 miles (600 kilometers) southwest of Buenos Aires, Villa Epecuén was a bustling tourist spot less than 30 years ago. Visitors were drawn to Lago Epecuén, after which the village was named, as its salty waters were said to be therapeutic. Unfortunately, in the end, the lake didn’t turn out to be very beneficial to the village itself.

Light breaks through the clouds, creating an almost apocalyptic scene.

On November 10, 1985, after an unusually heavy rainfall, the lake broke the dam that had been constructed to safeguard the village. The streets of Villa Epecuén slowly became flooded. The deluge claimed a great deal of the town, robbing people of their livelihoods, their community and their homes.


An embedded tire in far from mint condition

Resident Pablo Novak, who returned to the village after the flood, told Peretti that the rising waters caught the inhabitants of Villa Epecuén unawares. He recalled that initially everyone took to their roofs, thinking the waters would eventually recede. When it became obvious that this wasn’t going to happen, the town was abandoned. Friends and neighbors were separated – many forever.


All that’s left is a heap of rust

The evacuation of Villa Epecuén was a traumatic event, from which many have never recovered. “There are those who are among us carrying a backpack [heavy with] bittersweet memories,” says ex-resident Ariel Sewald, who only has photographs to remember some of her friends from the town.

A building crumbles away

Another former inhabitant of Villa Epecuén, Norma Berg, remembers her pet cats and dogs running away just before the flood, as if they had a premonition of the looming disaster. She never saw them again. “A lot of the locals never, ever came back,” says Berg. “Other people just died of the shock and stress of losing everything.”


Street signs for streets that no longer exist

When the lake finally began to recede in 2009, it exposed a very different place to the one that went under water more than two decades ago. Green and thriving vegetation was replaced by blackened tree trunks and rotten branches, which Peretti says look more burnt than drowned. “There’s something unnerving about the way the trees are still organized into neat lines,” writes the photographer in the Vice article. The buildings that emerged were also in ruin.

Weird tree silhouettes rise above the water.

Braving the ominous surroundings, Peretti spent the night in a crumbling remains of an old slaughterhouse in the abandoned village. The structure, he says, along with the rest of its surroundings, smells like the ocean.


Some trees appear torn off above the roots.

During his stay, Peretti was disturbed by thousands of pigeons roosting in the ruins of the old slaughterhouse and the unsettling sound of lapping water. Most people probably wouldn’t have lasted the night.

A plastic Coca-Cola crate perched on the ruins.

Villa Epecuén seems that much more forlorn and melancholic when you contemplate its once-vibrant and bustling past. Before the flood, the village had 1,500 permanent residents and attracted around 30,000 tourists every year. The visitors had been coming since the early 1920s to soak in the lake. Like the Dead Sea, the salty waters of Lago Epecuén were said to relieve aches and pains and help with skin problems.


A few glass bottles that somehow remained intact.

In addition to the income generated through tourism, Lago Epecuén also boosted the town’s economy by supplying salt for both the pharmaceutical and glass-making industries. Looking at the disintegrating remains today, it’s not that difficult to picture the wide tree-lined avenues, the busy cafés and the sounds of happy people on vacation.

Telegraph poles line this street.

The decade just before the flooding has been described as the village’s golden age. More and more hotels were being built and there were carnivals, dances and parties. It was the biggest spa area in Buenos Aires, and a place for whole families to come and enjoy themselves. Nobody suspected that the lake at the heart of the village’s success would one day be the death of it.


It’s not surprising that almost none of the original residents have chosen to return.

What makes the village’s fate even more tragic is the fact that it could have been avoided. In 1975, the government built the Ameghino canal to regulate the water flow into the region’s lakes. Ironically, the canal was built to ensure that Lago Epecuén, which had been shrinking thanks to years of drought, would always have enough water to keep the tourist industry alive.

Here, what looks like a corroding battery makes us wonder about possible toxic hazards in the ruined village.

When it was constructed, the canal was considered a marvel of engineering. However, the people of Villa Epecuén didn’t realize they were coming to the end of a dry spell, and that from the early 1980s onwards the lake water would begin to rise. Furthermore, the political upheaval in Argentina in the 1970s meant that the canal wasn’t adequately monitored – with disastrous consequences.


Debris still clings to these metal grilles.

According to Peretti, Villa Epecuén’s only current resident, Pablo Novak, now lives in a simple hut. Peretti says that Novak seemed nostalgic of the way the village used to be when it was a thriving resort.

All that’s left of somebody’s bathroom or kitchen

In its current state, Villa Epecuén attracts less desirable visitors as well. Some people from the nearby city of Carhué occasionally take advantage of Villa Epecuén and its lack of legal protection to see what they can loot.


A group of ducks isn’t phased by the village’s creepy layout.

The area’s indigenous tribes have a haunting legend about Lago Epecuén that fits the village’s current sad-looking state. They say the name of the lake comes from an orphan who was rescued from a forest fire and called “Epecuén,” which to them meant “nearly burnt.” The boy Epecuén grew into a fierce warrior, who one day kidnapped the daughter of an enemy chief. Her name was Tripantu, which translates into “spring.”

Rusted beds stand out amongst the rubble.

Tripantu eventually fell in love with her captor, and for a short while Epecuén was equally in love with her. Eventually, however, Epecuén fell for other captive girls and Tripantu was heartbroken. In her sorrow, Tripantu cried enough tears to create a huge salt lake, in which Epecuén and his new lovers were drowned. According to folklore, this is the origin of Lago Epecuén.


Here, only the stairs are left standing.

Realizing that she had drowned her beloved (and unfaithful) Epecuén, Tripantu is said to have gone crazy and wandered up and down the shore of the lake. Finally, during a full moon, she heard Epecuén call to her from the waves and was never seen again. Lago Epecuén then ultimately became sacred to the tribes living along its shores.

Sunset over the abandoned town.

Now that the waters have receded, people are once again returning to Villa Epecuén. These days, they’re attracted by the opportunity to explore a town that was once under water. Even filmmakers have visited the village – the ruins of Villa Epecuén have been featured in Roland Joffe’s movie There Be Dragons, which is set during the Spanish Civil War.

According to Peretti, Villa Epecuén turns up on the news from time to time, but few residents of Buenos Aires are even aware of it these days. We’d like to thank Federico Peretti for sharing his photographs of Villa Epecuén with us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12