Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca’s Calcified Mineral Waterfalls

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.

2021 UPDATE: Local landowners have decided to close Hierve el Agua indefinitely.  See below for more information.

If you’re a celiac coming to Oaxaca, please see my long gluten free guide to Mexico here.

If you’re in the area and want to visit Puerto Escondido, I have a guide for that beautiful region of Oaxaca state here.

Mineral pools at Hierve el Agua near Oaxaca
Mineral pools and the smaller of the two petrified waterfalls.

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.

swimming in mineral pools at hierve el agua
A little sulphur goes a long way.

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!

visiting hierve el agua
View of the mineral pools
hierve el agua
This lone tree reminds of me of the Wanaka Tree on Lake Wanaka. Equally beautiful; different shades

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.

"Cascada grande" at Hierve el Agua near Oaxaca
“Cascada grande” at Hierve el Agua
agave oaxaca
Agave from the short walk to the “cascada chica”.
petrified waterfalls oaxaca closed
A view of the “cascada grande” from the other side of the cliffs.

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.

swimming hierve el agua oaxaca
Someone left their flip flops after a swim in the pools! Made for a fun photo.

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.

Why is Hierve el Agua Closed Indefinitely?

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.

Will the falls reopen? It’s hard to say. Hierve el Agua was closed previously, 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 closure, here.

If Hierve el Agua reopens, here’s how you get there:

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.
  • 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.

visiting hierve el agua in oaxaca state
Mother daughter visit to Hierve el Agua!

72 thoughts on “Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca’s Calcified Mineral Waterfalls”

  1. Perfect timing. We are considering going tomorrow and hoping it might be cooler up there than in town (no aircon in our place:( We have a rental car for this week but heard the road is dirt for 13km and a bit iffy. What did you think please?

    1. It’s definitely dirt road toward the end! I’m not sure how you drive or how comfortable you are on dirt roads but I’d be comfortable driving on them — just go slowly. I don’t have aircon either but prefer it that way – yay for fans!

  2. Wonderful article and photos Jodi!! I had no idea this waterfall existed, but I’m putting it on my long list to visit, since one of my favorite things to do is photograph waterfalls (calcified or not). I love the colors and limestone makes such incredibly diverse and beautiful landscapes in so many places around the world. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This looks like a really awesome day trip. Those falls look like you could do some serious sledding on them. Although the climb back up looks like zero fun…

        1. Hi Ken, per the post please send me an email. If you’re going this year, however, note that Hierve is closed (as it’s community run) per friends in Oaxaca, for the safety of the community.

  4. Leslie in Oregon

    Did you take a dip in the pools? If you did, how did it feel? I’m always on the outlook for water experiences!

  5. O my – the very last time I commented on your wonderfully received blog was on the Wanaka tree ( Gist: How did it survive – Ans: It was growing in top of a submerged fence post) {Irrelevant info – I’d just come back from Georgian Bay and was raving equally about the geography of there and where your photographs were coming from]

    But now, dammee, I’m equally puzzled by that wee struggling tree on the edge of the pool in Hierve el Agua. It looks a tad, well, defunct, slightly past its prime, not a tree bursting with health and prosperity, though mebbe in true Canadian fashion it has just gone into hibernation? It’s having a winter rest…?

    Yet how the dickens did it ever grow there? What the devil is over the lip of that pool?

    O dear. You’ll now think me an arborealist fanatic – not true. The connection between the two was quite striking, though.

    I do appreciate your blog. adams

  6. I’ll definitely keep this place in mind, when visiting Oaxaca (hopefully later this year). Magical. Thanks for sharing.

  7. So glad I came across this! I ran into some friends recently who had just been to Hierve, and they were still in awe but had a really hard time describing the falls. I can see why, now!

  8. Wish I had read this before we visited the falls today! And lovely pictures, Jodi – you guys must have gotten there quite early as there are no other tourists in sight

  9. I’ve never seen something like this before… It’s unreal! When I read it I was able to imagine everything you’ve written. The photos did the remainder ;)
    Well done!

  10. Such a fun mother-daughter trip! I love when my parents tag along on my adventures. Half of the fun is watching them see it. I imagine it will feel the same with children one day!

  11. Every time I read one of your blogs I end up having to eat something – not that it is a bad thing!

    Love the photo of the ‘lone tree’ – really captures the beauty of the place. I can’t wait to go to Mexico and taste the street food myself.

    Kyle / http://www.backpackingbuds.com

  12. Hi. I will be in Oaxaca next week as a companion/assistant to an elderly man. I’m interested in hiring a driver. I am wondering about the accessibility by wheelchair of Hierve. Is there a way to take in the view or get near any of the pools? He can also hang out at the eating area while I do some exploring. We both speak Spanish. Thanks.

  13. Am going to be in Oaxaca in January. My son also raved about Hierve el Aqua. There are 4 of us and would appreciate the name of your driver – I’ll send you an email!
    Thanks
    Fanny

  14. Chayo Flores Zaldivar

    I wish I had seen your blog before we went to Oaxaca; but I did get to go to Hierve and only got my legs wet and my hands. I had been suffering from neuropathy on my digits and my toes. A couple of days after getting my legs and hands wet, my husband asked me if I felt okay … I had not even noticed, but the tingling sensation was gone! It will be a month this coming November and I still have not gotten’ the tingling sensation so I would highly recommend this “treatment” for anyone suffering neuropathy. Mine was from chemotherapy. Thanks for the opportunity to post.

  15. Thanks so much for the really informative blog. We are visiting this area on January 6th 2017 and also Mitla. I will ready the rest of your blog about Oaxaca and the surrounding area . Hopefully it won’t be too cold for a quick dip in the water.

  16. How much is the charge for a driver and car to visit Hierve el Agua and Mitla? Is this a whole day trip or can this be done half day?

    1. Hi John, it’ snot a guided trip – depends on the rates for drivers at that time/gas prices. At present it’s 200 pesos an hour for the car to Hierve. It’s over an hour to get there, so it’ll cut it close!

    1. Kimberly MacLoud

      Hi, what a wonderful looking destination! My sister and I will be in Oaxaca for 9 days over Day of the Dead. I’m rounding up excursions. I think we are looking for a mix of wandering, colectivo excursions and a few local tours. Please recommend your driver. I will see if he/she has time for us. Thank you

  17. If you are still willing, I would like information about the driver as well. Thank you for the details on this beautiful place!

    1. Hi Aspen, not sure if you saw what’s going on (www.legalnomads.com/a-long-hiatus/) but work is on hold so I missed this comment – pls email to jodi-at-legalnomads .com if you’d like more info about the driver, per the note in the post.

    1. Hi Ian, not sure if you saw what’s going on (www.legalnomads.com/a-long-hiatus/) but work is on hold so I missed this comment – pls email to jodi-at-legalnomads .com if you’d like more info about the driver, per the note in the post.

  18. My wife and I are planning a trip to Oaxaca. Twice I have come upon your blog when searching specific items. Thanks you for the informative information and pictures, it takes the fear out of traveling and helps us organize what we want to do.

  19. Hello! I am wondering if I can get the contact information for your reliable driver contact. I plan to visit Oaxaca in February. Thank you for this post!

  20. Hi Jodi, Thank you so much for how clear and thorough your post was including prices was especially helpful. I will also be staying in Oaxaca city the week before and after Easter, including a side trip to Puerto Escondido! I would love the info for a driver to go to Mitla and if you have any tips about navigating Easter week. Thanks again, Be Well! Julie

  21. I looove that place ! it’s awesome. it can get pretty crowded during the day, though! but when I went there, there was a Quinceañera !! :D

  22. Andrea Adelson

    Thank you for your suggestions. I`d like to take you up on your offer to suggest a private driver for a trip to Hierve el Agua for six adults in February.

  23. Hi Jodi.

    I appreciate your blog with the great info and photos!! My cousin and I will be spending six days in Oaxaca in November, and I would love to have the name/contact info of a reliable driver, if you are still giving out that information. Thank you!

    Linda

  24. Kristina Peterson

    Hello! Thank you for the insightful article. Are you able to share any recommended drivers for visiting Hierve el Agua? Muchos Gracias!

    1. Hi Sarah, I just spoke with someone in Oaxaca to ask, and they said that since they have closed all access since March, and may stay closed through the end of the year. With COVID-19 cases quite high in Mexico, Oaxaca state is being very cautious. All the best to you.

  25. My wife and I love your blog. We went to Oaxaca and checked out Hierve del agua. The only downside was we went with a tour which was an all day tour with multiple stops. Hierve del agua was last. I had fun but my wife was tired out. What would you suggest for transportation up there next time?

    -Brian Miller

  26. Great blog! I saw the date of September 3rd, 2020 at the top. Is this when you visited? I’m wondering if Hierve el Agua is open with the ongoing pandemic.

  27. Hello – Great post! We are hoping to go on Tuesday. Could you please email me the details of the driver you recommend please? Thanks! Tom

  28. Iris Jane Robinson

    I would love the information on the driver you used. Going to Oaxaca in August. Hopefully things will be opened back up by then. Thank You!

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