Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca: Mexico’s Premier Bubbling Springs and Petrified Waterfalls

Spectacular vista of Hierve el Agua from Hiking Path

Hierve el Agua is one of the most spectacular attractions in the state of Oaxaca, if not all of Mexico. Yet it’s surprisingly one of the least visited sights along the central valley touring routes leading out of the city of Oaxaca. Hierve el Agua should be considered a “must see” for naturalists, photographers, hikers and anyone else with an interest in the outdoors, who is planning a visit to south or central Mexico.

Translated “the water boils,” Hierve el Agua is actually a misnomer. At two locations about 75 feet apart, water does indeed “boil” up from the ground; not hot, but rather forced to the surface by the earth’s interior pressure, arriving at roughly atmospheric temperature.

Water rises to the surface, then channels into two man-made pools of fresh, mineral-rich water. Since the pools gradually reach a depth upwards of seven feet, they are suitable for swimming. Taste the water before it reaches the lower pool, as it flows along a narrow canal from the puncture in the earth; it’s crystal clear and pure, of course aside from natural mineral compounds.

The Effect of Minerals at Hierve el Agua

The bubbling springs are rich in mainly calcium carbonate and magnesium. Descending towards the actual site to swim, one walks over mineral deposits, somewhat smoothed over with the use of cement and powdered limestone to make it easier to ambulate. Thousands of years ago the surface was lower, having gradually risen to its present level as a result of the deposits.

It’s this mineral build-up which gives the appearance of petrified waterfalls. Standing on the main precipice near the lower pool, one sees the postcard perfect “waterfalls,” a photograph often reproduced for promoting tourism in Oaxaca. However, there is a different falls, accessed by a short hike.

Hiking and Walking Paths at Hierve el Agua

There are numerous trails and pathways at Hierve el Agua, great for taking short hikes. Each route is less than an hour in duration, including stopping to marvel and take photographs.

Depending on the time of year, some paths may be overgrown, but certainly not to the extent that there is any undue danger, or risk of getting lost. The most well-traveled paths leads up and around to the top of the principal falls. One often sees hikers who have already made it there, just sitting and gazing back towards the pools, having a vantage-point for viewing the second impressive petrified falls.

Another pathway, requiring more agility, leads down into the valley along a series of ridges and narrow corridors. One arrives at the base of the principal petrified falls, from where one is able to do a bit of climbing; however there is signage warning against it. Pause and look back every once in a while, and see the effect caused by the trickling water over the course of millennia.

Even those without any interest whatsoever in hiking or climbing, are inevitable struck by the natural beauty of the deep valleys, the distant fields of agave under cultivation, and the blue skies or cloud formations or a combination of the two, hovering over the surrounding mountains.

Tourist Facilities at Hierve el Agua

In 2008, just above the actual Hierve el Agua site the government completed construction of a large, impressive, traditional swimming pool, as well as dining facilities. There are about a dozen small, modern restaurants alongside a shady, palm leaf palapa; and an equal number of row-house hotel suites close by, constructed years earlier. It is not known when any of it will be operational.

In the interim, there are several simple eateries lining the access route to Hierve el Agua, beside the parking area. Souvenirs, towels and bathing suits are sold in the same area. There are basic washroom facilities nearby, as well as further down at Hierve el Agua itself, adjoining rudimentary change rooms.

A larger restaurant, Alice’s, is located on the left side of the road, before reaching the gate where the entrance fee is paid. The food is typical Oaxacan fare, cooking on a comal over an open flame fueled with firewood.

Arrangements can be made at the restaurant for lodging at one of the Tourist Yu’u lodging facilities. There are four cabins which provide rustic yet adequate accommodations for an overnight stay. Inquire at Alice’s for details, or book by calling a cellular phone, either 045951106356 or 044951106356. The village where Hierve el Agua is located, San Isidro Roaguía, has a few small stores and a restaurant.

Accessing Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

During late 2009, the new highway which will ultimately cut driving time from Oaxaca to the Pacific coast, opened from just beyond Mitla, to San Lorenzo Albarradas, about four kilometers from Hierve el Agua. But the more scenic route is along Highway 190, passing by a few quaint roadside mezcal factories, as well as El Tigre, a combined comedor and mezcal palenque about 1/2 kilometer before the San Lorenzo turnoff, from where Hierve el Agua has traditionally been accessed.

Since about 2004, there has been conflict between the residents of San Lorenzo and San Isidro, as a result of which at times a toll is exacted in San Lorenzo so as to enable tourists to continue on to Hierve el Agua. It can be avoided by taking a less traveled, more circuitous dirt road mountain route, through the village of Xaagá. As of early 2011, access to Hierve el Agua has been restricted to the Xaagá route, although during rainy season as well as during times of higher than usual tourism, the drive can be extremely slow, and indeed somewhat precarious.

On the other hand, a visit to the several thousand year old pictographs at the rock overhang at Xaagá makes the effort worthwhile. While driving through the village, simply ask a resident if he knows anyone who can act as a guide take you to the pictographs. The fee should not be more than about 100 pesos. Last year, UNESCO designated the ruin sites at nearby Mitla and Yagul, as well as the neary “cave” drawings, as a World Heritage Site.

At Mitla there is a taxi service to Hierve el Agua, but be prepared for sitting on simple wooden bench seats in the enclosed back of a small pick-up truck. Otherwise, drivers and tour guides in the city of Oaxaca are available to take visitors to Hierve el Agua as part of a day touring what is popularly known as Oaxaca’s Mitla route.

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Alvin Starkman is a resident of Oaxaca. He and wife Arlene run Casa Machaya OaxacaBed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), a quaint bed and breakfast just outside of downtown Oaxaca. Alvin is the Oaxaca destination expert for a major international travel website, writes about cultural traditions in Oaxaca, consults to documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca, and assists in arranging small group culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).