Epecuén: a metaphor for decline in Argentina
The story of the town that disappeared in 1985
Hello Avatar! Today we will be talking about the fascinating story of the town of Epecuén. It is a story from the 80s that has mostly been forgotten, but serves as a perfect metaphor for Argentina’s general economic decline over the past 70+ years: it’s a story of greed and mismanagement that led to a disaster that could have been averted.
Epecuén is a town located in the southwest of the province of Buenos Aires, right on the shores of Lake Epecuén, a basin that plays an important role in the town’s past and present.
Lake Epecuén is five to ten times saltier than sea water, and its Mapuche name is said to refer to the salt's ash-like look.
Until November 1985, when the lake that gave the town its name invaded the town, tourists with chronic rheumatism would take the train from Buenos Aires to benefit from the water's healing properties.
Just so you have an idea, the location is about 6 hours by car from the capital Buenos Aires:
This particular region (and most of the Buenos Aires province for that matter), has always had issues with flooding after heavy rainfall. It is innate to the type of Pampa wetlands the interior of central Argentina is known for.
So what happened in Epecuén?
Abandonment during the Military Junta
In 1975 the local government created a canal around Epecuén, which connected various basins and regulated the flow of water in all of the region's lakes and lagoons. The idea was there would be no drying out and no flooding after these waterworks.
The plan was to stabilize Lake Epicuén’s uneven flow, which was a natural feature but caused significant disturbance to the spa tourist business.
The works began with the construction of a water collection canal, but were abandoned halfway through at the moment the Civic-Military Dictatorship took over in 1976.
From 1980 onwards, large rainfalls threatened to flood the town, exacerbating the situation. The lake kept rising at an alarming rate, threatening to overwhelm the four-meter-high defensive embankment designed to protect the town of Epecuén.
The 1985 Flood
In 1985 the moment arrived where Epecuén would soon see no more spa tourists or any tourists whatsoever. In that year the province of Buenos Aires was witnessing one of the worst floods in history.
During a strong flood in early November 1985, some Epecuén residents, including local firefighters, expressed concern that the embankment separating them from the lake might collapse.
Municipal and provincial officials maintained their classic “no pasa nada”, and were convinced that any overflow would not impact the town in any mayor way.
They also thought that they would see that nice inflow of tourist capital yet again that same summer. They were wrong. Sometimes, “no pasa nada” is a recipe for a meal called “se fue todo a la mierda”1.
On November 10, 1985, the embankment protecting the town gave way. In another section farmers blew up another dam to preserve their fields, worsening the situation.
The town of Epecuén completely flooded and had to be evacuated. Coffins were transported from the cemetery, and the municipality transferred them to Carhué —a town 5 miles from Epecuén— together with the remaining living residents.
The evacuation process lasted 15 days and there were no casualties. Epecuén progressively flooded, and the nearly 1,500 permanent inhabitants that once lived there, lost everything.
The Carhué residents did not provide shelter to the evacuees, who had to live in tents on the outskirts of town for two years.
The flood reached its peak two years later, and the ruins of the town remained submerged for two decades. The majority of Epecuén's surviving citizens now live in neighboring Carhué, and they have conflicting sentiments about what happened to their hometown.
Hyperinflation lends a hand to wash away fines
Alejandro Armendáriz, the former governor, was accused of ordering the removal of the defense mechanisms that kept the water at bay. He and several officials would later be charged with diverting public funds intended for flood relief.
Affected neighbors also accused them of diverting food aid to local party bosses based on partisan political criteria in exchange for votes — something that occurs everywhere in Argentina until today. In that sense, it is comforting to see that nothing ever changes, at least there’s that.
During the 1988-1989 hyperinflation those fines were conveniently devaluated, and were basically wiped out, together with the rest of anything denominated in australes, which was the national currency at the time.
The last man standing
Epecuén is only inhabited by Pablo Novak, a die hard born in 1930 who refuses to leave his home town.
Novak still walks his dog "Chozno" daily across the ruins of Epecuén. This is a mini documentary (in Spanish) about señor Novak.
Epecuén was lost to the world until recently, when the floods receded and the town's ruins began to draw a different type of tourism.
What's left of Epecuén looks like a scene from a dystopian movie, with crumbling buildings overgrown with weeds.
A few buildings remain, with brick walls with cracking plaster, but roads have mostly disappeared. A few iconic buildings such as the Hotel Monte Real, give an idea of the spa tourist hot spot it once was.
Another building is the Parque Hotel, originally the town's largest hotel. It was built in 1937 and purchased in 1984 by Raúl González. He didn’t get to enjoy his investment very much, which in a way is a form of poetic justice: González was the local official who said “no pasa nada”2, and refused to take the warnings seriously.
Today, the water level has almost completely receded. The street layout, the retaining dam, and the ruins of residences, hotels, and iconic structures and dead trees are still evident.
Like many Argentine disasters, the flooding of Epecuén was one that could have been averted. When the local council realized the water was about to breach the high dyke that protected the town, they decided not to act out of hubris and ineptitude.
In the end, tourists did return to the town. Photographers, visitors and journalist from all around the world frequent the ruins of Epecuén to get their hands on a great photo. And surely nowadays the place must be crawling with TikTokkers and Instagrammers.
See you in the jungle, frens!
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English translation: “Everything went to shit”