When you think about real estate being “underwater” these days, upside-down mortgages are likely the first thing that comes to mind. Not a modern-day Atlantis literally rising up from the depths.
Travel a few hundred miles south of Buenos Aires, and you’ll find Villa Epecuen. The small Argentinian spa town sits along the shore of Lago Epecuen, a beautiful indigo blue lake nestled high in an alpine valley.
Lago Epecuen is like most other mountain lakes, except for one important difference. It has salt levels second only to the Dead Sea. Ten times higher than any ocean.
Lago Epecuen’s theraputic powers have been famous for centuries. Legend holds that the lake was formed by the tears of a great Chief crying for the pain of his beloved. It is said that Epecuen — or “eternal spring” — can cure rheumatism, skin diseases, anemia, even treat diabetes. Some say a plunge into the salty blue water is a miracle cure for paralysis.
Villa Epecuen transformed from a sleepy mountain village to a bustling tourist resort soon after a railway line linking it to Buenos Aires was built in the 1920s. Before long, tourists from all over South American and the World came flocking. By the 1960s, as many as 25,000 a year came to soak in the soothing salt water.
The town’s population peaked in the 1970s. More than 5,000 people lived and worked year round.
Nearly 300 businesses thrived. Everything from hotels and hostels, to spas, shops, and museums. Residents enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in South America.
Around the same time however, the rain started falling and wouldn’t stop. Heavy rain fell on the surrounding hillsides for more than a decade.
Over time, slowly rising flood waters filled the lake to the brim.
It all came crashing down on November 10th, 1985. A huge gush of water burst through the stone and earth dam and flooded most of the town in more than four feet of water in just hours. Former residents say they barely had enough time to grab their belongings and run.
But, as it always seems to eventually happen, Mother Nature reversed her course in 2008. The rains slowed down to a trickle. Before long, submerged streets began to rise up from the depths. An iridescent salt caked ruin that looked like something from the other side of an apocalypse.
Villa Eqecuen’s neat, symmetrical rows of dead trees look like they’ve been burned instead of drowned. Their knobby roots sticking out of the ground like bony, white fingers. The once welcoming little hotels and restaurants now seem frozen in time.
During the day, Vella Epecuen is quiet as a ghost. But at night you hear all sorts of weird noises. The old slaughterhouse, now home to thousands of restless pigeons, is one of the loudest.
Many locals that left have never come back, not even to visit. But one man has. 81-year-old Pablo Novak is the Villa Epecuen’s sole resident. The lonely octogenarian rides around town on his bicycle every day, remembering better times.
“I am OK here. I am just alone. I read the newspaper. And I always think of the towns golden days back in the 1960s and 70s,” Novak says.
The strange, haunting landscape has inspired several filmmakers to shoot here. Roland Joffe — best known for his Oscar nominated films “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” — shot several scenes for the Spanish civil war drama “There Be Dragons” in-and-around Villa Epecuen in 2009.
Here’s the official trailer.
And here, just for the obsessive-compulsive heck of it, is a behind-the-scenes video where Joffe talks about why he wanted to make this movie.
It looks pretty good. I think I’ll have to rent it.