Mendoza nowadays may be famous for its wine lodges, but it was a water lodge that first put it on the discerning tourist’s map. Emilie Giraud takes a peek into the Grand Hotel Villavicencio and its impressive nature reserve.
A thirty-minute drive north of Mendoza City, on the old mountain road that leads to Chile, you’ll find an abandoned mansion in a lush green oasis. This Swiss style pile was once a hotel and spa that catered for the rich and famous and now is the iconic symbol on the label of one of Argentina’s most popular mineraI water suppliers – Villavicencio.
Yet Villavicencio is not just a high-end bottling plant with an accidental and improbable hotel added on. It is also a splendid natural park of 72,000 hectares, where guanacos wander like herds of sheep and desert fox approach you shyly. Condor soar above and armadillos scuttle in the sand. The road itself is a majestic rise through desert, rock, abandoned silver mines and petrified forests and offers some of the most stunning views and scariest falls. Known as the Road of 360 Curves, it is the more adventurous way to reach Uspallata on the way to Chile and on one such high turn you can even spot the icy tip of Aconcagua peak.
The name itself comes from Joseph Villavicencio, a mysterious captain from the Canary Islands and first migrant to build a house in the area in 1680, at the exact same place where the abandoned hotel now stands. Water in Mendoza is gold, and Villavicencio was blessed to have both gold mines and water springs which made it a much coveted place.
Archaeologists think that the area was already inhabited 12,000 years ago by tribes of hunter-gatherers from pre-Huarpe communities who would camp around water springs, hunt guanacos, nandus and hares and harvest the fruits of the carob-tree. In the aftermath of the colonial foundation of Mendoza in 1561, the Jesuits dug for silver and gold in what was one of the first mines in the country in the area of Paramillos, 12kms from the actual hotel.
Villavicencio is literally criss-crossed by Argentinian History. From 1561 to 1891, it was the main road between Buenos Aires and Santiago and since 1817, part of San Martin Route, that celebrates the campaign for Independence. At the entrance to the Reserve, the Monument Canota commemorates the historical moment in 1817 when two columns of General San Martin’s Andes army separated before crossing into Chile to liberate the Andes. This division was crucial in San Martin’s ingenious military plan to fool the Spanish troops and start the Freedom Campaign that would lead to the independence of the continent from colonial domination.
The bottling of water started in 1903. Three Frenchmen, with a local pharmacist and doctor attributed curative powers to the crystal clear water that was rich in calcium and potassium and started to sell it in small glass bottles in Mendoza’s Pharmacies. In 1923, Don Angel Velaz created the Society Termas de Villavicencio and made the water business successful by solving the issue of water transportation to Mendoza with the installation of an aqueduct. He also created the icon of the brand with the construction of the Hotel Termas de Villavicencio in 1940. World War II had burst out in Europe, and like the rest of the Argentinian high class, Velaz couldn’t make it to France for his annual thermal baths routine. Rumours say that the hotel was born from his urge to cure his hemorrhoids. What is sure is that the hotel was inspired by his travels to Europe and mainly to Evian.
The hotel was constructed in the same time period as many Peronist social hotels like Chapadmalal, but contrary to them, the resort was managed privately and catered to a very elitist clientele seeking rest and cure during the summer. Built in less than 6 months, the hotel is not exactly the Titanic of the Andes one expects to see. It is rather an austere Norman style building, with its typical red-brick inclined roof and immaculate white walls incrusted by crosses of dark wood that gives it a grave look. Apart from the warmth of some murals and paintings, the inside part is austere and the furniture is mainly rustic. The lamps were made of cart wheels and iron bedheads.
Upon their arrival, people would check-in and undergo a medical diagnosis before settling into one of the 30 rooms with private bathroom and thermal water in which they would enjoy their treatment during extended vacations. But not only was Villavicencio the holiday haven of cherry-picked members of the Argentinian elite. Its terrace and the superb view it offered were a must go destination for the local bourgeoisie. They would go for the day to drink tea, be mesmerized by the landscape, take a bath and eventually bring home some of the precious liquid.
Behind the shutters that nowadays hide the interiors of the hotel, one can imagine the buzz of the dining room, the swirls in the ball room, the idle chat of gentlemen queuing at the barber´s, the outrageous show-off elegance of some ladies walking in the gardens, or the bustle of the staff as they try to make the best of everyone´s stay. The terraced gardens were designed by the son of Carlos Thays, the creator of gigantic Park General San Martin. The grounds were planted with exotic European trees, garden ponds and pathways that invited further exploration. Of course there was also the obligatory tennis court and mini golf course. Apart from providing their host with hydro therapy, the hotel also promoted a healthy lifestyle inviting people to eat well and exercise, without forgetting their moral elevation – an Andean health farm if you like.
The spouse of Velaz and her devoted friends were preoccupied with the salvation of local’s souls. Remote from any parish, the ladies had noted that many couples working in the area were not married nor their children baptized and that many hotel residents would simply not attend mass because of the distance. A year after the opening, in 1941, a little chapel with a traditional cane roof was erected. This is nowadays the only place you can visit inside. The neo-colonial church by architect Ramos Correas houses an impressive altar which displays the last supper by Horacio Cruz.
Unfortunately under Velaz´s management, the hotel was never profitable. It was opened all year long when tourism was very seasonal. It relied on expensive power generators for electricity and the staff was a whopping 90 people to attend only 60 guests. The same water that was the reason for its existence slowly caused the premature death of the hotel. The rich quantity of mineral slowly blocked up the plumbing and finally lead to the closure of the hotel in 1970. The scarcity of hotels in Mendoza for the 1978 World Cup saw its brief re-opening to accommodate the foreign press corp. In the same year, the Grupo Greco, had planned to restore and extend the hotel to make it economically viable, but after less than a year of management the group went bankrupt and was taken over by the military dictatorship. After 12 years of state control and minimal maintenance, the place and the plant were bought by the Cartelone group who restored part of the gardens but quickly dismissed any chance of re-opening the hotel as the investment required was just too high.
In 1999 the French multinational Danone bought the hotel and its 72,000 hectares reserve. The fantasy of reopening the sleeping hotel has already been abandoned by the new owners, but there are plans to renovate the facade and to create a museum inside.
Since the year 2000, Villavicencio has officially been recognized as a Natural Park but the area has been considered of archaeological, botanical and geological interest for centuries. Charles Darwin, on a side trip from his famous voyage on the Beagle, spent two days in Villavicencio in 1835 where he discovered a fossilized forest of Araucarias. It was close to here that he also noticed sea fossils 3000 meters above sea level and the germ of the theory of evolution was planted in his mind.
Nowadays, the Danone Group and the 4 park rangers who manage this unique private reserve are registering its incredible fauna and flora. Here are some plants and animals you can spot at different altitudes of the reserve, some of which can be observed in the reserve’s small museum, a few meters from the hotel.