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Villa La Angostura’s rebirth

Mother Nature has mysterious ways—it can create incredible beauty and it can also turn it into an instant nightmare.

That is exactly what happened in idyllic Villa La Angostura, a popular winter ski destination and summer lake resort in Argentina’s Patagonia that ended up covered by thousands of tons of ashes when the nearby Puyehue volcano erupted in June 2011.

All business, starting with crucial tourism, came to a sudden halt after a thick gray mantle of ashes covered the Andean region famed for its forests, lakes and hills. Sheep herds were decimated, as ashes covered the grasslands and stuck to their wool, making them too heavy to move.

Yet in no time the village’s 7,300 inhabitants mobilized to clean up the mess, starting with their own houses, quickly removing a layer of up to 12 inches of ashes and dust from their rooftops.

“The most complicated part was the roofs. You wanted to get the ash off quickly to avoid collapse,” said Carolina, who lives with her husband and two young daughters in a typical forest wooden cottage near the village.

Cleanup of gardens and town streets followed. An army of Patagonians equipped with shovels and wheelbarrows, backed up by bulldozers and other pieces of heavy machinery, completed the task. A thick layer of ashes floating on the lakes was also cleaned up. Residents even placed birdfeeders to draw birds back to the area.

Children returned to school after a six-week hiatus and power was restored to the village following a 25-day blackout. Total losses exceeded $100 million.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) pitched in, quickly arranging an emergency loan to support the recovery drive launched by local residents and provincial and federal authorities.

Following the eruption “people were overwhelmed with frustration,” said IDB’s environmentalist specialist Ricardo Quiroga. “This has now changed dramatically—there is a rebirth and people are now looking forward to the future.”

Tourism Minister Enrique Meyer was also buoyant: “At times during the [southern hemisphere] winter vacation [Villa La Angostura] was fully booked,” he said.

The 20-hectare Arrayanes National Park, one of Patagonia’s most iconic sites after the Perito Moreno Glacier, was given a massive cleanup to restore its beauty. In normal times, during high season up to 4,000 people visit the park every day.

Now that the emergency is over, the proud local residents display a new determination. So do the trees.

“Nowadays we have a new layer of soil formed by volcanic ashes providing abundant nutrients,” said Juan, a park ranger. “Actually, the arrayanes [trees] flowered twice this year and bore much more fruit. Everything looks much greener. It was hard to tell in the beginning, but it (the volcanic eruption) did a lot of good.” Mother Nature does act in mysterious ways.