‘I met my wife because of the flood’ says the taxi driver as we move along the pockmarked and pitted road to the ruins of Epecuén, a once bustling spa town in the south of Buenos Aires that rose from the flood water that had submerged it twenty years earlier. ‘My parents were aid workers, she was an evacuee.’
Lake Epecuén is five or ten times saltier than sea water, depending on who you talk to, and its Mapuche name supposedly refers to the ash-like appearance of the salt. Back in the day, people with chronic rheumatism would take the train from Buenos Aires to benefit from the water’s curative powers, right up until November 1985, when the lake that gave the town its name took the town for itself. The trains now evacuated the inhabitants, and that branch line was flooded the following year.
Like many Argentine tragedies, the flooding of Epecuén was one that could have been averted. The local council saw that the water was threatening to exceed the 5-metre high dyke protecting the town, but sat on their hands, out of the usual combination of arrogance and ineptitude. Farmers dynamited another dam to save their fields, condemning a whole town in the process. ‘The people of Carhué didn’t give shelter to the evacuees’, the taxi driver tells us. ‘They lived in tents on the outskirts of the town for two years. People lost their homes; many died of sadness.’ We pass El Castillo, the remains of a castle-themed hotel that subsided into the ground, only one of its turrets remaining, popping out of the marsh.
Epecuén remained lost to the world until a couple of years ago, when the waters subsided and the town’s ruins began to attract a different kind of tourism. It feels odd to visit ruins of such a recent vintage. When you visit, say, Pompeii, you’re not so concerned about how Pompeii’s former inhabitants feel about tourists nosing around their homes, or riding a BMX over them to advertise a popular energy drink. Most of Epecuén’s surviving residents still live in neighbouring Carhué, and have mixed feelings about what’s become of their home town.
What remains of Epecuén is like a scene from a war film, albeit pretty much at the end of the film, when the veterans return years later, weeds have grown over everything and it’s all very peaceful and sad. Swallows flit about the ruins, chirping in the petrified trees, all salty white and fawn, stunted like the antennae of comic-book aliens. A few buildings still stand, mostly those built not long before the flood, brick walls with the plaster crumbling off, like Hotel Monte Real, its claret and gold rhombus tiles, while elsewhere are delicate mosaics of mustard and emerald green. While many towns in Argentina retain a very 1970’s feel, this is inevitably true of Epecuén.
Mostly we see piles of bleached-white stone and bricks and concrete, rusted girders, the occasional feature still standing where all else has crumbled: grey wooden door frames, a brick fireplace, a 10-step staircase leading to nowhere. The Parque Hotel, reads a sign on a spot where there is nothing but rubble and stunted trees, was once the town’s largest hotel, built in 1937 and acquired in 1984 by one Raúl González, who presumably spent the next year kicking himself as the waters rushed in.
We walk down the deserted main strip, Avenida de Mayo, and look at photos of the same avenue in its late 1970s heyday, lined with Ford Falcons. At least the traffic has improved. At the end of the avenue, ripped wires hanging from telegraph poles flap in the wind coming off the lake. A commemorative sign tells us this where the municipal bathing complex used to be, fresh water swimming pools, two slides still visible, rusting out in the water, and beside that in delightful juxtaposition a non-commemorative sign in red capitals, BATHING STRICTLY FORBIDDEN.
It is tempting to see in the history of Epecuén -a tragedy that could have been averted for want of stupidity, pride or greed, people dying of sadness, waiting for someone to help them, a desolate bleak shadow of former glory and bonanza– a symbol of Argentina itself. Hold that thought as on the way out of Epecuén we pass what is probably now, in a delightfully-DeLilloesque way, the world’s most photographed slaughterhouse, designed by Francisco Salamone, its strangely shaped tower, the letters MATADERO silhouetted in the sky. Built in the 1930s, it was novel not just for the eye-catching Art Deco exterior but also the new large-scale, mechanized slaughter techniques used inside. The lake came up as far as the abattoir but didn’t flood it, so for a while they carried on butchering, surrounded by water, before eventually giving up the ghost.
Carhué can be reached from Buenos Aires by coach (8 hours, £26) or, for the adventurous, by train to Pigüé (11 hours, £6) then 40-minute coach to Carhué.