If you’ve been waiting to visit the natural salt terraces at Pamukkale but feel the country of Turkey is still too dangerous, there’s an alternative you may not have heard about. Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico is a similar, but off-the-beaten-path gem. And not only will you find the mineral pools, but also dramatic petrified waterfalls.
The Mineral Pools at Hierve el Agua
The name “Hierve el Agua” means “the water boils.” The mineral springs bubble warm water (71° to 80° F) up from fissures in the earth and release oxygen into the crystal clear cliff-top pools, which range in color from bright turquoise to emerald green to yellow-green, depending on weather and mineral content.
The dramatic, natural petrified waterfalls are two of only a few in the world. Over thousands of years, the mineral-laden water spilled slowly over the cliff. In much the same manner as how stalactites are formed in caves, the cascading water calcified, created an illusion that the falling water is frozen.
The water from the springs is captured into two pools where visitors can swim. The upper pool has a lone petrified tree giving the landscape a surreal look. If the water is not too high, there’s a ridge where you can cautiously walk around the edge of the pool.
The lower pool has an infinity edge which goes over the cliff edge. The minerals turn the water shades of green, yellow, and turquoise, which together with the drop off and Sierra Madres on the horizon create one of the most dramatic cliff-top vistas in all of Oaxaca.
The natural platform at the top of the cliff (called “casada chica”) where both pools are located is called “the “Amphitheatre.” This cliff rises around 165 feet above the valley floor.
Quite surprisingly, in spite of “the water boils” moniker, the water is chilly but refreshing. Contrasting the hot Mexican sun, the cool green pools are like an oasis rising out of the surrounding desert. As if that’s not enticing enough to make you leap right in, the mineral water is reputed to be beneficial for the skin and have healing qualities.
Hiking is a must to get from one area to another within the complex. How far and how much you want to see is up to you, your fitness level, and which of the numerous trails you want to take.
It’s a short, easy hike down to the mineral pools and stunning vista. A good many tourists stay here, soaking up the sun, the minerals and the views.
The Petrified Waterfalls at Hierve el Agua
A bit more hiking will take you to a spot where you can see and feel tepid water bubbling out of the rocks, as well as your first glimpse of the second and larger petrified waterfall, the “cascada grande.” While the hike thus far has been easy and mostly downhill, keep in mind the hike back to the pools is entirely uphill and more difficult, especially in the blazing sun and hot, dry climate.
You can easily grab a local guide if you’d like to take a longer hike from the cascada chica to the cascada grande, the larger waterfall. When you get to the base you’ll have a closer view of the mineral formations and panoramic views of the towering petrified falls from a lower perspective. The cascada grande is 295 feet above the valley floor and more vertical, but does not have mineral pools on its shelf.
It takes about an hour via the main trail that leads down the side of the mountain. Be warned, though… don’t let the short travel time fool you. It’s steep and there are a lot of loose rocks on the way down. The way back is entirely uphill and you’ll be rock climbing – all with the blazing Mexican sun bearing down on you. Appropriate footwear, a hat, and an adequate water supply are an absolute must, or you’ll be miserable…or worse.
After spending time hiking, swimming in the pools, and absorbing the amazing scenery, a short walk back to top of the site brings you a rustic but attractive area with stands selling food, drink, and local handcrafts and an open-air area restaurant. For refreshment, the local favorite is a carved out pineapple filled back up with the chopped up fruit and rum, and dusted with chili powder.
Note: there is just a tad of controversy surrounding Hierve el Agua. For many years, this landmass was in a tug-of-war between two indigenous communities, each of which claimed the right to profits from the site. It got so bad that the entrance to the waterfalls was closed to the public from 2005 to 2007. An agreement to the land dispute was eventually reached, and now the two towns share the entrance fees earned from the site.
A day at Hierve el Agua is a memorable experience – I was totally entranced with the diversity of natural beauty clustered in one location. Indeed, it was my very favorite experience in the entire State of Oaxaca. But it’s not easy to find or get to. The site is in an isolated region with rough terrain. The area is desert and dry, with the only water source coming from the springs from the rock formations.
I highly recommend that you consider a curated tour group, like Cantimplora Travel, which also provides a personal photographer on all their eco-friendly adventure tours at no extra charge. Samantha and Bernie who run Cantimplora are very friendly and fun; they are Mexican citizens and understand the local culture and history, as well as where to find off-the-beaten-path adventures like Hierve de Agua. Not only will they be your guides, they will become your friends. And 10% of Cantimplora’s profit goes to help local businesses, giving travelers the opportunity to give back to the places they visit and encourage responsible travel.
The Mexican Government recently decided that it wants to promote this area, so I’d recommend you get to Hierve el Agua sooner rather than later, while it’s still pristine and without unmanageable crowds. It’s one of the most unique and visually impacting destinations in all of Mexico.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Cantimplora Travel during her stay in Oaxaca, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.