During my initial few months in Oaxaca, I had the comfort of time to explore the area at leisure. There were street food crawls and market wanders, cooking classes and long coffees with locals and expats to learn more about the city I decided to call home.
In the middle of these exploratory days was a jam-packed week when my mother planned a last-minute visit to town. We ate, we hugged, we drank a lot of mezcal, and we spent a whirlwind day of sightseeing. I took her to the archeological ruins at Mitla, to the widest tree in the world, El Tule, and to Hierve el Agua.
I hope to write about Mitla and the Tule tree another time, as both are fascinating in their own right. In the interim, I wanted to share a short post about Hierve el Agua, the calcified waterfalls southwest of Oaxaca de Juarez (Oaxaca City). Not only are they a gorgeous sight, but the history and geology make for interesting learning. Also, the oxymoron of the sight’s name merited a discussion on the blog.
2022 UPDATE: Local landowners decided to close Hierve el Agua in the earlier days of the pandemic, but as of this update in 2022, it has reopened, with new rules and entrance fees in place. See below for more.
Why are Oaxaca’s falls called Hierve El Agua?
Initially, I was confused looking at these waterfalls because in Spanish, hierve means to boil. I expected boiling water over the side of a mountain, an endless loop. Instead, Hierve el Agua looked frozen in time, cascading down the side of a cliff to the valley below.
After my visit, I learned that Hierve el Agua was created by mineral water that pushed through karstic limestone, depositing the falls onto the mountain’s edge. While the waterfalls are white, two mineral pools sit at the edge of the cliff, full of calcium carbonate, magnesium, and just enough sulphur to lend them a yellow hue.
Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the Greek word stalaktos means “to drip”. In the case of underground caves, rainwater trickles down, seeping through limestone and creating a calcite patch on the roof. In the case of Hierve el Agua, the process happened outside, with minerals that bubbled out from the middle of rocks, slowly calcifying over thousands of years into the rock formations that you see today. These ‘falls’ were named for the subtle phenomenon of mineral deposits “boiling” on the mountainside.
The name is slightly misleading because the springs aren’t actually boiling. They are heavily carbonated instead, with temperatures varying between 22-26C. To be fair they do spurt out from the rocks like boiling water might. And their nonthermal temperatures mean that swimming is a possibility. Yay!
A Brief History of Hierve el Agua Waterfalls
Hierve el Agua might be a tourist destination today, but the bubbling springs used to supply water to an intricate series of canals and terraces leading down to the valley, comprising one of the most complete terraced irrigation sites in Mesoamerica. Archeologists suggest that the canal system was abandoned sometime in the 1300s, (source), with only traces of the canals remaining today.
Presently there are two falls to visit, a larger (called cascada grande) and a small one (called, you know it, cascada chica), which we visited at the same time. From the top of the mineral pools we hiked a short few minutes up, then looped around to the left to view the second, smaller fall from the other side of the rock’s edge.
We arrived early and I would suggest you do also, as the site gets awfully crowded during high season. There are changing rooms not far from the parking lot if you need to change into a swimsuit to take a dip in the mineral pools and cool off.
And because it’s me, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the food: there are stalls serve the usual corn snacks, perfect for the next leg of your journey: quesadillas, memelas, and more. We got ours filled with stringy quesillo, Oaxacan cheese, and squash blossoms. Also recommended for a snack: freshly chopped jicama, a delicious Mexican turnip that is faintly sweet and extremely refreshing, especially when dipped into a combo of chili, lime, and salt.
Responsible Tourism is a Must when Hiking and Visiting, Anywhere!
As with any beautiful natural wonder, it’s important to be responsible in your visit. This means no activities that could damage the land, not straying off the walking paths, and of course not leaving a trace. The trail is approximately 2.5km (1.6 miles) and should not be deviated from to protect the surrounding flora and fauna.
In 2019, two tour companies were singled out by Hierve’s municipality San Isidro Roaguía for not following laws and customs at the site (link is Spanish), and the site is far busier and Instagram-popular than it was when we visited.
This is part of why the area is now closed to tourists.
For more information about how to travel responsibly, please see these 20 tips from Uncornered Market.
Is Hierve el Agua back open? As of 2022, yes—but sustainability concerns remain.
Oaxaca has become a more and more popular place to visit, with a focus on the textile, food, and mezcal of the region. As more tourists poured into the Oaxaca Valley, Hierve el Agua became more and more crowded as well. According to a Conde Nast Traveler article about the closure, the president of the land affairs committee in the San Lorenzo Albarradas municipality where Hierve el Agua is located said that the falls drew anywhere from 2,500 people to 7,000 people per day pre-pandemic.
Despite these soaring numbers of tourists, the local area, predominantly inhabited by Zapotec people, has remained mired in poverty. Community landowners in San Lorenzo Albarradas have maintained that the Oaxaca government did not transfer millions of pesos it was owed from entry fees to Hierve el Agua, and that state management of the falls did not make room for sustainable tourism plans.
Hierve el Agua was closed previous to the pandemic, but did reopen after the parties agreed upon a resolution. Lawyers for the landowners and the San Lorenzo Albarradas municipality want to see the entry fees directly transferred to them, and a push from the government to focus on sustainability, conservation, and protection of the surrounding area.
Per the CN Traveler piece:
Beyond the petrified falls themselves, the conflict has closed off the wonders of the entire nature reserve around Hierve el Agua. “There are archaeological ruins in the mountain caves,” says San Lorenzo Albarradas’ land-affairs president Bulmaro Olivera García. “There’s a huge diversity of plants and animals in which we could invest in bettering and amplifying ecotourism services.” For those reasons, San Lorenzo Albarradas has posed sustainable ecotourism and conservation initiatives as the key to reopening Hierve el Agua. The town demands the government invest in the community’s few thousand inhabitants, who remain largely impoverished, through those initiatives.
There is a Spanish article about the pandemic closure, here.
In late 2021, the communities reached an agreement to re-open the falls with capacity restrictions of 200 people per day, an agreement that included banning three travel / tour operators from operating there.
Getting to Hierve El Agua:
As of March 2021, the falls are no longer accessible to tourists. This post was written in March 2016 and has been updated since to reflect the changes in access. I am leaving this section here for now, in case the falls reopen. You will not be granted entry if you try to go these days; the access road is shut and there is no alternative way in.
- The simplest is to hire a driver, and combine Hierve with other sights in the region, such as Mitla and the gorgeous El Tule Tree, the widest tree in the world. If you would like to use a driver, I have a trustworthy recommendation for you — just send me an email via the contact form on the site.
- There are some tours that are specific to Hierve el Agua, but I have not used them other than Suzanne Barbazat’s Discover Oaxaca tours, which I can recommend. She does private tours to Hierve el Agua and elsewhere in the Oaxaca Valley.
- The cheapest would be to take a bus or collectivo (shared taxi) from Oaxaca City just outside the baseball stadium (north of the city center) to Mitla. From there, you can grab another shared taxi or shared pickup truck to Hierve el Agua — you’ll see them holding signs for your destination.
- A note about tolls: Note that there is now a new highway leading from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua, and there is a toll of 49 pesos to take that new road. In addition, the pueblo of San Lorenzo Albarradas has put up what they refer to as road maintenance toll on the way to Hierve, which is an additional 10 pesos per person. Entrance to the springs are paid separately, at 20 pesos per person. And finally, if you do hire a driver, the parking at Hierve el Agua is 50 pesos per car.
More about Hierve el Agua from Visit Mexico’s official site here.