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Hierve el Agua is an unforgettable destination in the mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. At first glance, these look like normal waterfalls but get closer and you’ll find these are ‘petrified waterfalls.’ They formed over thousands of years as natural springs calcified over a steep cliff face, creating an otherworldly natural phenomenon that is as magnificent as it is rare.
I had heard a lot of hype about this place before I visited and wasn’t sure it would live up to it, but it totally did! Hierve el Agua resembles something out of a fairy tale or a beach castle made from dripped sand come to life. At the top of the rugged cliff face, a series of pristine pools provide a welcome place to cool off from the harsh desert sun.
Ever since pictures of the unique natural wonder began circulating on social media, travelers discovered this is one of the best places to visit in Mexico to experience the magic for themselves. It’s no surprise that Hierve el Agua attracts between 2,500 and 7,000 people per day and is one of the top things to do in Oaxaca!
While I did find this place full of tourists when I visited, it didn’t feel overly touristy, and there was still lots of room to take in this amazing spot.
Located just over an hour outside the popular tourist destination of Oaxaca City, the petrified waterfalls make an excellent day trip. There are plenty of tours departing daily and ways to visit on your own so that you can experience the natural wonder for yourself.
If Hierve el Agua is on your bucket list, check out this guide with everything you need to know to have the perfect day trip!
1. About Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua has been in the making for thousands of years – formed from the runoff of the carbonated springs at the top of the towering cliffs. The carbonated water from the springs running off the cliff slowly calcified, creating the fantastic petrified waterfall effect.
As the water from the spring slowly trickles over the cliff, the excess minerals in the water are deposited, creating the rock formation. The process is very similar, if you’re familiar, to the way stalactites form in caves.
There are two separate rock formations at Hierve el Agua. The smaller is called the Amphitheatre or Cascada Chica, which means ‘small waterfall’ that flows down about 40 feet (12 meters) off the cliffside. The larger formation is appropriately named Cascada Grande or ‘large waterfall’ and reaches about 100 feet (30 meters) down the cliffside.
Experts believe Hierve el Agua was likely a sacred site for the Zapotec people who inhabited the area. The natural springs contrast sharply with the otherwise dry arid landscape, and archeologists have discovered that a complex irrigation system was built around 2,500 years ago. Using a series of canals around the main amphitheater of Hierve el Agua, the Indigenous people were able to funnel the spring water so that they could use it for agriculture.
At the top of Hierve el Agua, there are a series of natural and manmade pools that maintain an enchanting green-blue color. Although the name Hierve el Agua translates to “the water boils” – temperatures remain cool year-round and provide a welcome place to swim and cool off after exploring. The name comes from the water bubbles you can see in a few of the pools, giving the illusion of boiling water – but it is created from the minerals in the water along with pressure and carbonation.
One of the swimming pools is perched thrillingly close to the cliff face. Those who are scared of heights might want to steer clear – but otherwise, it provides the perfect place to relax in the cool water while taking in the view of the rugged mountains all around.
2. Where is Hierve el Agua?
Hierve el Agua is near the town of San Lorenzo Albarradas in southwest Mexico in the state of Oaxaca. The petrified waterfalls are located about 1.5 hours from the popular Oaxaca City, which continues to grow in popularity as one of the best places to visit in Mexico. Most tourists visit Hierve el Aqua on a day trip from Oaxaca City.
Hierve el Agua is very remote, in a somewhat desolate area of rugged mountains and desert landscape.
3. Is Hierve el Agua open?
The short answer is that yes, Hierve el Agua is open, but it is a good idea to check with locals before you journey there on your own or simply book a guided tour. The destination has sparked controversy between the Mexican government and the local community, spurring protests and the eventual closure of Hierve el Agua in March 2021.
The conflict has been ongoing for decades – and continues to this day. No one can seem to agree on who exactly controls Hierve el Agua – whether it is the Indigenous communities around the site or the Oaxacan government. The area around Hierve el Agua is populated by around 3,000 people, most of whom are indigenous Zapotec whose ancestors inhabited the land for thousands of years.
Locals accused Oaxaca’s government of failing to pay millions of pesos from the entrance fees that were promised to the local community – funds that they planned to use to reforest the area, build critical infrastructure, and help heal the extremely impoverished area. If you visit the site now that it’s reopened, it’s an incredible gesture to support the local community. However, you can also enjoy a delicious lunch from one of the local vendors or restaurants or perhaps buy some incredible handmade souvenirs to take home with you. This ensures money goes directly into the community.
For a while, no one seemed to know if Hierve el Agua was open or closed. Reports began to circulate that it was reopening in November of 2021 after almost a year of being closed. Currently, it is open for tourists, but there have been some reports of continued protests and road blockades that can make it difficult to reach the site.
Check with local guides before attempting to visit on your own, or you might make the drive only to be turned away. The safest option is to book a tour; your guide will always know the scoop.
4. Is Hierve el Agua worth visiting?
Hierve el Agua is absolutely worth visiting! Only a few similar sites exist in the entire world – located in Turkey and China.
The views from the top of the falls are breathtaking, a soak in the pools is refreshing and fun, and there is nothing quite like seeing a cliff face, which looks just like a waterfall turned to stone.
5. What is the best time to visit Hierve el Agua?
The best time of year to visit Hierve el Agua is from November until January, but you can visit year-round. Your best bet is to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds of tourists or late in the afternoon after most people have left.
Midday is the busiest time, with many tours arriving around then. If you’re visiting on your own, catching a sunrise or sunset from Hierve el Agua is absolutely breathtaking.
If you’re looking to swim in the spring-fed pools, visiting midday or in the afternoon isn’t a bad choice because the water will have some time to warm up in the sun. It’s chilly at night, and the water is icy cold first thing in the morning. When we were here around sunset, it was too cold to swim!
6. Hierve el Agua opening hours?
Hierve el Agua opens to the public from 7 am to 5 pm daily. During these hours, you can visit the attraction and stay as long as you like.
7. How much does it cost to visit Hierve el Agua?
The current cost to visit Hierve el Agua is about 50 pesos which is equivalent to about $2.50 USD.
You’ll need to pay this fee in cash at the entrance and make sure you have pesos on hand to pay as they don’t accept other currencies.
Parking near the site is an additional fee of about 80 pesos ($4 USD). Tours of Hierve el Agua vary in price and will usually include the cost of admission.
8. How long is the hike to Hierve el Agua?
It’s more of a walk to Hierve el Agua, not a hike, and from the entrance, it’s super short, easy, and accessible.
Once you’ve entered the site, there are plenty of beautiful hiking trails that you will also have access to, and these are a bit more challenging and involve some steep stairs.
The hike around Hierve el Agua is totally worth it if you have time. The hike takes about an hour and offers many different views of the petrified waterfall, plus you can find some secluded spots to enjoy the scenery all by yourself. It’s a good idea to enjoy the hike before you go swimming so that the water is even more refreshing.
9. How to get to Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca?
From Oaxaca City, there are plenty of options to get to Hierve el Agua. The easiest option is to book a tour like this one that will pick you up from your hotel and take you straight to the site. That’s the one we took and we loved how easy it was and affordable at under $40 USD.
Another option is to rent a car and drive. Car rentals in Oaxaca City are about $25 USD per day, and this option gives you the most freedom and the ability to get to Hierve el Agua early before the crowds.
If you have a small group, renting a car is also one of the most cost-effective ways to visit. The drive is mostly straightforward – you’ll simply hop on the highway and head toward Mitla. There will be a few tolls along the way, so it’s a good idea to have a little extra cash. The highway is preferable to the free road, which has tons of speed bumps and potholes and will take you much longer – around 2 hours minimum.
If you choose to travel via public transportation, you can take a small bus or “Colectivo” from Oaxaca City to Mitla. You can catch this bus from the Second Class Bus Station or on Boulevard Jose Vasconcelos. This bus costs around 20 pesos or around $1 USD. Once you arrive at Mitla, you will hop on another Colectivo or Camionetas, which will ascend up the steep unpaved road to Hierve el Agua. These leave from near the Mitla bus station and cost 40 pesos or around $2 USD.
There will undoubtedly be plenty of other travelers making the same journey, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the right bus. There aren’t many places to go in the area besides Mitla and Hierve el Agua.
10. Can you swim at Hierve el Agua?
Swimming in the pristine spring-fed pools is one of the best things about visiting Hierve El Agua!
Make sure to pack a swimsuit because it gets super hot in the afternoon sun, and you will absolutely want to take a dip.
The pools are usually crowded with other visitors, but you can still snap some great shots of the vibrantly-colored water and the incredible view from the infinity pool perched on the edge of the cliff overlooking the stunning mountain range.
11. Do you need a guide to visit Hierve el Agua?
Hierve el Agua doesn’t require that you visit with a guide. You can absolutely visit on your own via a rental car or public transportation.
That being said, tours are inexpensive and knowledgeable guides will offer you plenty of great information about the petrified waterfall and the history of the area. We had a great time on this tour!
12. What should you bring to Hierve el Agua?
In order to have the perfect visit to Hierve el Agua, it’s a good idea to come prepared with a few essentials. Make sure you pack a day bag with the following items to ensure that your day is as enjoyable as possible.
- A swimsuit
- A dry change of clothes if you want to change after swimming
- Cash (pesos) for food and admission fees
- A camera – the photo opportunities are amazing!
- Plenty of water
- Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing
- Good shoes for hiking the trails around Hierve el Agua
13. Facilities at Hierve el Agua
Surrounding Hierve el Agua, there are plenty of delicious local food stands where you can sample some true local delicacies – the Oaxaca region is famous for its cuisine, after all! Make sure you have cash on hand because this is also a great way to support the local community.
There are restrooms available for a small fee of about 5 pesos (.25 USD), which is another reason why it’s a good idea to have some change with you.
If you want to enjoy Hierve el Agua all to yourself, there is a nearby campground as well as some cabin rentals that offer the best opportunity to get up early before the crowds and watch the sunrise.
Related Read: After chowing down at the local food stands around here, make sure you also check out the best restaurants in Oaxaca City, Mexico!
14. Can you fly a drone at Hierve el Agua?
Flying drones is strictly prohibited at Hierve el Agua. There are rangers on duty who will stop anyone who starts to fly a drone, and you can be charged a very hefty fine for failing to obey the regulation.
They aren’t messing around with this rule and will absolutely confront you if you start to try and fly one.
When we were visiting, someone tried to fly one, and they got in a lot of trouble. The authorities were very aggressive with him. Don’t risk it!
15. What are the best Hierve el Agua tours?
Visiting Hierve el Agua via a guided tour is one of the best tours from Oaxaca City!
Booking a tour is without a doubt the easiest and most hassle-free option to experience the strange and stunning natural wonder. The tours that depart from Oaxaca City are relatively inexpensive, and many of them offer other unique cultural experiences that pair perfectly with your Hierve el Agua adventure.
5-in-1 Full-Day Tour
Topping the list of our favorite Hierve el Agua tours, this full-day adventure allows you to experience Hierve el Agua and so much more! We took this tour the last time we visited and absolutely loved it. You get picked up right from wherever you’re staying in Oaxaca City at 8 am, and then get ready for an exciting day on this group tour.
First, the tour stops by the famous Tule Tree – known to be the widest tree in the world. After about 20 minutes to enjoy the tree and the surrounding area, you’ll hop back on the shuttle and head to Teotitlan del Valle – a tiny traditional village known for weaving beautiful textiles. The adventure only gets better because, after the village, you’ll head to the Mitla archeological site, where you can explore for an hour before departing for Hierve el Agua.
After a few hours of taking in the sights and swimming at Hierve el Agua, the shuttle departs again for a final stop at Santiago Matatlan – the Mezcal capital of the world! At the end of your day, the shuttle will drop you right back at your lodgings. The cost of the tour is only about $38 USD, which is a bargain for all that you get to experience. Just make sure to have pesos on hand as not all the admission fees are covered on this tour.
Book the 5-in-1 day tour online here!
Since the pandemic, private tours have grown increasingly popular. This private tour with a guide is a great choice. Your group of up to three people will be picked up from your Oaxaca City accommodations around 8:30 a.m. before heading to Monte Albán, the most important ancient ruins site in this region.
You’ll also meet with local families and see demonstrations of working with black clay and making little figurines out of copal wood. The cost is $199 USD for a group of up to three people, making this a great option for a private tour with friends or family.
You must book this private tour online in advance.
A two-day combo tour like this is an amazing option for first-time visitors to Oaxaca City who want to experience everything the region has to offer. On the first day, you will visit Monte Albán, the largest city of the Zapotec. Day one also includes a visit to the 16th-century church and experiences with several local craftspeople and artisans.
On the second day, the tour will take you to the Tule Tree, Hierve El Agua, a mezcal tasting, and more! If you’re ready to get out and explore for a few days during your trip to Oaxaca City, this is a great pick. The cost for both days is just $96.95 USD per person. You can read all the details and book online here!
Hierve el Agua and El Ray Distillery Tour
If your focus is Hierve el Agua and mezcal, and you’d like a tour without all the extra stops – the Hierve el Agua and El Ray Distillery Tour is the perfect choice for you. You’ll have more time at Hierve el Agua than the other tours, with around 3 hours to hike, swim and explore.
After you’ve taken in the beauty of Hierve el Agua, the tour will depart for the famous El Ray mezcal distillery, where you can enjoy a full tasting that is included in the $40 USD per person cost. You’ll have two hours to drink and enjoy before returning to Oaxaca City. You can book this tour in advance here.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Of course, you’re going to need a place to stay in Oaxaca before and after visiting Hierve el Agua. Luckily, there are plenty of hotels to choose from in Oaxaca City, and something for all types of travelers and budgets!
For those looking for a luxury stay, the Quinta Real Oaxaca hotel is a five-star hotel that is simply beautiful. Inside and out the stylistic decor sets the scene for an upper-class yet relaxed stay. This hotel is not only located right in the middle of the historic center, but it also has a beautiful outdoor pool! On a hot summer day, this is the perfect place to relax and cool off.
For those looking for a great deal, Hotel Parador de Alcala is incredible with everything you could need and more! In fact, it could easily be considered a “luxury” hotel, but since the price for a standard room comes in under $100 USD, it truly is great value for money! It features a rooftop pool and is right in the historic center.
Yabanhi Hostel is a great hostel in the sense that there are dorm beds and common areas available, but they also offer standard double rooms for good prices as well as bungalows that have their own private kitchen! These bungalows are great for those who love to cook.
For more info, read our detailed guide about where to stay in Oaxaca!
Renting a Car in Mexico
Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to get around Mexico is in a rental car.
I struggled to get around by bus and taxi for the longest time. But after renting a car in Mexico in 2019, I never looked back. It allowed me to explore the country without worrying about tours or taxis. It was why I fell in love with Mexico and eventually decided to live here periodically.
I refuse to use local services whenever I rent a car in Mexico. The truth is they sometimes can’t be trusted or come with hidden fees (or costly insurance that doesn’t make sense.) There are even rental car scams! So instead, I use Discover Cars, the company most experienced travelers or ex-pats in Mexico recommend.
The rates on Discover Cars are cheap, too, with the average rental costing around $25 USD per day. Full coverage insurance can be added for an extra $10 USD a day too.
Driving in Mexico also only requires a driver’s license using the Roman alphabet. If yours uses another like Japan and China, you simply need an international driving permit.
Insurance is required, but if you book with Discover Cars and get the full coverage, that’s all you need! Oh, and being over 18 is required, and if you’re over 25, your rental will be much cheaper!
Travel Insurance is more important than ever right now!
If you’re traveling during these uncertain times, be sure that you have travel insurance!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance when we are going on longer trips. They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $42 USD per 4 weeks!) and even have coverage in case you get that dreaded c-word. The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!)
It’s safe to say that travel insurance has saved us thousands over the years!
Thanks for reading!
Hierve el Agua is nothing short of magical – from the incredible rock formations to the colorful spring-fed pools, it’s such a beautiful sight to behold. If you’re visiting Oaxaca City, make sure to add Hierve el Agua to your itinerary for an unforgettable experience.
While you’re in the midst of planning your travels, make sure to check out our other blogs on Mexico. And have a peek at our in-depth guides including:
BEST things to do in Puerto Escondido