Meet Argentina's loneliest man

Kamilia Lahrichi, for CNNPublished 7th July 2015
Villa Epecuen, Argentina (CNN) — The heavy air and near-silence are oppressive.
Only the creaking of a rusty bicycle saddle can be heard in the desolate streets of Epecuen, about 500 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital.
"This is all that remains, that's it," says 85-year-old Pablo Novak, the ghost village's sole inhabitant.
After being buried under 33 feet of water for about 25 years, Epecuen re-emerged in 2009.
The water evaporated due to dry weather conditions.
Now, the town could be the set of a Tim Burton movie.
With dead and bleached trees (the effects of corrosive saltwater), rusted carcasses of cars and mosquito infestation, the atmosphere is surreal.
An abandoned slaughterhouse at the entrance of the town sets a Gothic tone.
You might expect freaks and ghouls to come out of the ground at night.
But Novak isn't afraid of solitude.
When the waters subsided, the man returned to his deserted hometown to become one of the loneliest men in the world.
"I spent time looking for a 20-year-old bottle of whiskey and, eventually, I found one that I drank all by myself," he says, bursting out laughing.
"As for good wines, they did not leave anything behind."

What happened to Epecuen?

From the floodwaters, a completely different Epecuen emerged.
From the floodwaters, a completely different Epecuen emerged.
Kamilia Lahrichi
Novak was 60 when the water gradually submerged the resort town of Epecuen, which at the time had a population of about 5,000 people.
Back then he lived outside the town's center, in the countryside, with his cows, lambs and chickens.
"There wasn't enough space in the town's center, you know?"
On November 10, 1985, following years of unprecedented heavy rains, the earthen dam broke at Lago Epecuen, a saltwater lake.
Water began overflowing the banks of the town's protective levees.
Within a few weeks, every local had packed up their lives to escape the looming catastrophe.
The waters eventually subsided; the long-term pattern of wet weather reversed.
Nearly 20 years later, Novak moved back to Epecuen, although the village was still partially flooded.
He settled in an abandoned house with a garden.
"I got back here to stay with my cattle. And I never left again," he says.


Novak still observes his solitary rituals, like making maté.
Novak still observes his solitary rituals, like making maté.
Kamilia Lahrichi
Every day, Novak's grandson, Christian, comes by to give him a hand with his two cows, and brings him food.
Novak's siblings each live in the neighboring town of Carhue, about five kilometers away from Epecuen.
At first, they were surprised by Novak's decision to move alone into a godforsaken village.
Even his wife didn't follow him.
She's now retired, but they live apart.
"They want me to have an annual medical checkup," he says, in a playful way. "But really, they don't like to come and go that much."
His small and dusty house looks like a storage room filled with rusted chairs and messy piles of newspapers.
Outside, a decayed Chevrolet truck serves to store empty gas bottles -- Novak doesn't have electricity.
"I got used to being alone," he says, while boiling water on a wood stove to prepare maté.
Although time seems to have stopped in the old man's life, calendars from 2008 and 2013 hang on the wall.
A relic of the past, an H-205 vintage radio -- his grandsons gave it to him for his 84th birthday -- is buried under a pile of papers.
With great tenderness and pride, Novak looks at pictures of his youth.
"I lost hope," he says. "I thought they were going to rebuild the town, considering its fame, but no one got the motivation to do so."
In its heyday, the shores of Epecuen's salty lake were a popular destination for vacationers from neighboring towns and Buenos Aires.

Reviving memories

Novak was born in Epecuen. He says he plans to die here, as well.
Novak was born in Epecuen. He says he plans to die here, as well.
Kamilia Lahrichi
Novak strolls through the deserted village every day with his dog, Chorno.
It's a ritual.
"At my age, I simply enjoy life, by walking through the ruins of Epecuen, hoping that someone will ask me something," he says.
On the left side of the main road, Novak remembers distinctly the Parque hotel with its big swimming pool.
Across the street, his taste buds recall the freshly baked bread and candies of the Coradini sweetshop.
"Trains would bring 11 passenger cars," he says. "There would be three young girls and young men in each," says Novak.
He smiles widely as he passes the ruins of a theater. He'd spend nights here, dancing with young women from out of town.
Ambling along a stairway to nowhere -- it once led to a hairdresser's shop -- Novak stops and points at what remains of his primary school.
A sign reads: Number 17: Hipolito Yrigoyen. Next to it, a sepia picture of what the school looked like.
These days, the brightest colors in the bleached-out town are the flowers on the cemetery's graves.
"I saw this town be born and I saw it die," says Novak, raising his hand in a gesture of resignation. "It does not affect me anymore."