The old Pismanta hot springs hotel, located in the Iglesia Valley at the foot of Argentina’s Andes 180 kilometers north of the city of San Juan, has undergone a notable remake that includes a new sauna, steam bath and spa. But in this case the improvements were not made by a new concessionaire or owner. They’re the work of the hotel workers who formed a cooperative and took over management when the former concessionaire went broke.
The members of the Pismanta cooperative aim to not only hold onto their income source, but also provide better services for tourists and give new life to their community’s economy.
In 2001 the hotel, deteriorated by years of neglect, had a very low occupancy rate. The concessionaire began to strip it of its assets and stopped paying wages. After six months, the workers went on strike. With the help of a legal team, they formed a cooperative and took over management. In order to attract a new clientele, they made extensive repairs to the newest wing of the building (built 30 years ago) and offered several new services to bring it up to the level of modern-day hot spring establishments. Since 2002 they have been a successful case of self-management.
Today, the Pismanta hot springs hotel provides a top-class service at surprisingly economical prices. Any guest will note that the workers take great pride in their work. Since forming the cooperative, they have renovated much of the hotel. Those who knew it before its changeover will be pleasantly surprised by the new mattresses, sheets, bed covers, curtains and bath fixtures in the rooms and the re-tiled thermal bath stalls. A new bakery and use of part of the property’s extensive grounds to raise barnyard animals has enabled the cooperative to expand the menu with dishes that feature always-fresh products.
“Since forming the cooperative we’ve recuperated a clientele, lowered priced and we are providing more services,” said Victor. The cooperative has hired 16 workers, mostly young people and currently employs 33 workers. Alberto, who has worked in the hotel’s maintenance for 30 years explains that the decisions are made by a worker assembly. “Once a month we hold an assembly to plan what we are going to do in the next month. All of the compaÃ±eros can discuss and decide whether the it’s a good idea or not.”
Far away from highways and noise pollution, Pismanta is a real oasis for travelers who want to rest and rejuvenate their health. The thermal water that runs through the hotel’s bathrooms, thermal bath stalls and outdoor pool is beneficial for those who suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, allergies and other skin problems. It also optimizes blood circulation and purifies the skin. The water helps digestion and metabolism, and helps control high blood pressure.
Use of the cooperative’s new sauna is included in the room rate. Monica Vega, an employee at Pismanta for 14 years, explains the routine (sauna, steam bath and Scottish shower). Guests must rest between sessions, so the sauna has a great relaxing area with soft lighting, comfortable chairs and aromatherapy oil. The sauna and steam bath open skin pores and detoxify the body. As Monica showed me the routine, I was somewhat intimidated by the Scottish shower (stationary shower jets that massage the head, neck, back and legs). But she laughed and convinced me that although most guests feel the same, they end up loving it. She was right!
One of the cooperative’s major challenges has been to make sure that the cooperative makes decisions democratically and horizontally. It has taken a lot of time and work to make progress against internal discrimination and machismo. However, the women have gained ground in the cooperative. They have made sure that their voice is heard in the assembly and participate in the cooperative’s political work. Monica, for example, traveled on a delegation to Buenos Aires to meet with other recuperated factories and enterprises. Romona this week is traveling to Buenos Aires to present a documentary about the success of the cooperative Pismanta in Bauen Hotel, a recuperated hotel in the heart of Buenos Aires.
Another gem at the hotel is the 30-metre outdoor pool whose hot spring water is cooled down to 25 degrees Celsius. Guests can settle into a soothing spiritual cocoon comprised of the warm, pristine water, the surrounding mountain ranges, and silence. Most local residents never visited the hotel. One of the cooperative’s projects is to bring residents to the hotel. Currently, residents can use the hotel’s facilities at an accessible price (1 to 3 pesos). They are also working to bring students from nearby schools to use the pool during the week when guest occupancy is lower.
Guido Marinero, the cooperative’s president and cook, said that there are long-term plans to renovate the oldest part of the hotel built in the ’50s and now out of service due to decades of neglect. They want to build large luxury suites.
If the hot springs are the life of the hotel, the kitchen must be its soul. The
restaraunt’s expanded daily menu includes a wonderful salad bar – a table loaded with a wide array of local fresh product (pickled eggplant, cured meats, artisan olives and tarts, to name just a few). Soup is served at lunch and dinner. During my stay I tried a wonderful onion cream soup, a squash soup, and a light vegetable soup.
The main course varies from night to night. To name a few: kid roasted with onions, tomatoes and carrots, rabbit braised in a herb sauce, prime rib, and chicken stuffed with greens, cured ham and herbs.
The desserts, prepared daily, include wonderful creations such as a fruit tart that looks like a work of art, and an erotic pear poached in sweet wine sauce and topped with delicately whipped cream. Another classic option is fresh goat cheese covered with local artisan preserves.
Domingo MontaÃ±a, the cooperative’s head baker and secretary, says that presentation is very important. Workers are passionate about their work and food. They are constantly taking courses in cooking and hotel service. Waiters go out of their way to make guests feel comfortable, answer questions and make sure food is served timely and hot.
The hotel serves as many local products as possible. Most of the meat served is free-range, some of which is raised on the hotel’s grounds. The hotel grows fresh herbs and apples, and raises pigs, turkeys and rabbits.
The cooperative has built a strong relationship with local producers. It buys fresh goat cheese from Magdalena, a small independent farmer who lives a few kilometers away. Her son, Clemente, grows an array of fruit and vegetables that also make their way to Pismanta’s tables. “The former management didn’t buy anything from us before. We are tiny producers, if the hotel wouldn’t consume our products, we almost wouldn’t have a market,” said Clemente. All of the jams and preserves served are produced at a local cooperative in the neighboring village of Tudcum.
The cooperative recently bought a minibus to take guests on guided tours. Tour guide Freddy Espejo, a historian who is working on a book on local history, is well verse in the region’s topographical and anthropological riches. Cooperative can now use the minibus to facilitate visits to the hotel. The region is extremely isolated and rural, deep in the Andes Mountains. There is no public transport, most workers who live some 5-8 kilometers away ride their bikes to work, some walk to and from work.
“Cooperativism is having insertion in the community. The cooperative is formed not only for internal benefit, but also for the benefit of the entire community,” explains Guido. For a neighboring school, the cooperative pulled together funds to buy tennis shoes for students. They bought the shoes from Gattic (cooperative united for shoes), a recuperated factory in the Greater Buenos Aires district of San Martin. They also cook lunches daily for children in the school.
The hot springs area where the hotel is located is named after Gabriel Pismanta, the son of Chief Angualasto. Born and raised in the Iglesia Valley, he went to Chile just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, and when he returned he found his tribe enslaved by the newcomers. He led a rebellion against the colonists and went into hiding with his family when the defeat was imminent. They retreated to caves deep in the Andes, where they finally died of hunger.
Legend has it that Pismanta died but was never defeated; his rebellious spirit was reborn and continues to live in the hot thermal waters welling up from the earth.
The Pismanta cooperative workers consider their undertaking another rebirth of Pismanta’s spirit. They are determined to keep their hotel running and to protect the purity of the extraordinary hot spring waters that make it a fountain of health in the middle of the desert.
They have a good chance of remaining in charge of the hotel, but they – and other farmers in the Iglesia Valley – face a threat far greater than the one pose to Chief Pismanta by the conquistadores: a big mining company high in the Andes whose destruction of glaciers and use of cyanide to separate disseminated gold ore from rock threatens to pollute the valley’s water supply.
Currently, the workers are in the midst of a legal fight for San Juan Governor Jose Luis Gioja to sign over the concessionaire to the hotel’s employees. “They want to kick us out of the hotel because we are poor, if we were rich and we would put all of the profits in our pockets they would give us the concessionaire,” expressed Romona.
Nevertheless, Guido Marinero expresses hope for the future of the hotel and the generations to come. “Those of us working in the hotel are the first generation of many who are going to self-organize and manage it and protect this resource (hot springs water) on which the future of our families depends.”
The Pismanta hot springs hotel is open all year round.
For further information call (02647) 497-092, or visit www.pismantahotel.com.ar.
Grupo AlavÃo just finished a documentary about the success of the workers struggle inside Cooperative Casique Pismanta.