Latin America & Caribbean

How an Argentine resort town rose from volcano's ashes

Lake Nahuel Huapi
Image caption Villa La Angostura lies on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, now clear again

A year ago, people in the picturesque town of Villa La Angostura were getting ready for one of their busiest times of the year: the start of the ski season in Argentina.

But all their plans came to a sudden halt when nature dealt them an unexpected blow.

A nearby volcano, which had been dormant for more than half a century, burst into activity.

Within a few hours, the town was covered in ash.

The eruption of the Puyehue volcano, in neighbouring Chile, caused massive disruption throughout the Patagonia region of southern Argentina, but Villa La Angostura, the town closest to the volcano, was the worst hit.

For nine months, the town lay under a coat of ash and its 13,000 residents had no idea of when the volcano would stop its activity.

Image caption A year ago, it was a different picture with the lake coated in mud and ash

The BBC visited Villa La Angostura in October, when the place known as the "Garden of Patagonia", was like a grey ghost town.

Many residents had left and there were hardly any tourists, who usually bring in more than 90% of the town's income.

"The worst part was not knowing when the ashes would stop," said Maxi Rodriguez Consoli, a local fishing guide, who, like many, chose to send his children away for a few months.

"We all considered leaving town but most of us decided to stay because we love it here," said Pablo Bruni, who works in the tourism office.

Born again

The town's fortunes began to change in March, when the ash stopped falling and many of those who had left earlier returned.

Image caption Locals embarked on a huge clear-up of their town

Twelve months on from the eruption, the woods and lakes that surround the town are bursting once again with colour.

Locals say Villa La Angostura has been "born again".

Walking through the streets of Villa La Angostura, there is little sign of the huge amount of volcanic ash, sand and rock that fell on the area.

A lot was shovelled by the locals onto trucks and taken to makeshift deposits.

The ash was then dumped into a small lake which had formed on the site of an old quarry. The lake is now completely covered over and some say it could become a prime location.

The local government estimates that it took 250,000 lorry journeys to clear the town.

Huge trout

The biggest amount of volcanic material fell on the forests and on the massive Lake Nahuel Huapi.

A natural clean-up has helped: unusually heavy summer rains washed away much of the ash. In the autumn, leaves still coated in dust fell to the ground.

It was widely thought that the thick layer of volcanic material would kill off a lot of the vegetation, but almost the opposite happened, as the ash turned out to be a good fertiliser.

"It was incredible to see the little sprouts coming out of the sand," said Mr Rodriguez Consoli.

The eruption also improved the appearance of the lakes and beaches, which now look sandier.

Fishing experts say it has even made the trout bigger than ever, a huge draw for the many angling enthusiasts who flock every summer from all over the world to fish in Villa La Angostura.

"The eruption was good for us. Not only environmentally, but as a society it brought us together," said Villa La Angostura's mayor, Roberto Cacault.

Snow, snow

But however optimistic the view, the Puyehue volcano did take its toll on this small town.

Image caption The town looks normal again but now it wants lots of visitors

Losses over the last year are put at more than $60m (£38m).

Almost all the 150 local hotels had to shut temporarily and more than 100 shops closed, around a third of them for good.

"Unemployment hit 40% and hasn't improved much since," said Maria Isabel Oliva, the secretary of the local chamber of commerce.

Last year's winter break was a failure, with hotel occupancy about 15%. A slow summer period followed, with about a third of the normal number of visitors.

So the people of Villa La Angostura are now pinning their hopes on a successful ski season.

They have reason to be optimistic. In April, Villa La Angostura had its most popular Easter break ever.

Now that the ash is no longer an issue, the locals just need one more thing to ensure a successful winter season.

"It all depends on the snow, like always," said former tourism secretary Juan Jose Fioranelli, celebrating the fact that all is back to, more or less, normal.

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