Hierve el Agua: Visiting Oaxaca’s Frozen Waterfall

Last Updated on: 4th November 2023, 11:31 pm

Oaxaca’s Hierve el Agua is one of just several sets of travertine pools and rock formations that one can find throughout the world. Accordingly, the natural wonder is by far the most popular outdoor adventure near central Oaxaca, whether you’re coming independently or by tour.

Whether you decide to go for a swim in the pools or do the loop hike around the area, a visit to Hierve el Agua shouldn’t take more than a few of hours. But getting there can be tricky, which you can learn more about at the end of the article.

Visiting Hierve el Agua

The unique formations of Hierve el Agua lie about 70 km east of central Oaxaca. And if you’re traveling independently, you’ll first want to make it to the city of Mitla, best known for its Zapotec ruins.

While most people take a colectivo from Mitla to the site, I ended up splitting a taxi with several other travelers (learn why below). Though I was initially surprised by the high price, it became more understandable as we made our way up the winding, unpaved road for about 45 minutes.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
The road up
The view along the way

Before your trip, make sure to confirm that Hierve el Agua is indeed open. You may be wondering how a natural site could be closed, but there have long been disputes between the local villagers and the Oaxaca government. 

In fact, the site had just reopened before my visit after months of closure. And it had nothing to do with the pandemic.

The locals felt that they weren’t benefitting from all the tourists passing through their village and using their roads, and so they shut down the whole  road in protest. As I’d later learn, this type of situation isn’t all that uncommon in Mexico.

On the way there, we passed by a checkpoint run by locals at which we paid 15 pesos per person to access the area. This did not include the actual 50-peso entry fee we’d pay upon arrival to the site.

The Travertine Pools

Passing by a myriad of food and drink stalls – still closed during our early morning arrival – we headed straight for the travertine pools. 

Before visiting Hierve el Agua, I set my expectations quite low. A couple of years prior, I’d visited what are arguably the world’s most famous travertines at Pamukkale, Turkey. But after encountering mostly dry and inaccessible pools, I was sorely let down (the nearby ruins there at least made up for it).

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

All in all, Hierve el Agua is much smaller than Pamukkale, and you’ll only encounter a handful of pools , a few of which are off-limits to visitors. But they are all at least filled with water, while the views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular.

But just what makes these pools unique?

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

The water here is rich in minerals like magnesium, calcium carbonate, and a bit of sulfur. And the pools have long been revered by locals for its curative properties. 

You’ll also encounter natural springs where you can see the water bubbling up from the ground. ‘Hierve el Agua,’ in fact, means ‘the water boils.’ And that is indeed what it looks like.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

Many visitors are surprised, however, to find that the water isn’t hot at all. I’d read on numerous blogs, in fact, that the water is too cold for swimming – even during the hottest months.

But upon dipping my feet in the water, I found the temperature to be fine, and regretted not having packed my bathing suit – especially after the hike.

With changing rooms on site, there’s no harm in bringing swimwear and testing out the water before deciding if you want to swim.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
A calcified formation near the main pool area

Aside from the Hierve el Agua’s ‘infinity pool,’ the other main attractions of the site are its ‘frozen waterfalls.’ As mentioned, the water here is incredibly mineral-rich. And over the course of millennia, it’s gradually hardened in certain areas, resulting in formations you’d normally see in a cave.

The formation visible at a distance from the pool area is especially impressive. And if you’re looking at a still photograph, it could easily be mistaken for a flowing waterfall.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

A short walk along a trail will take you to a viewpoint just above it. And it’s also around here that those looking for a bit more action can find the starting point of an hour-long loop trail.

Hiking at Hierve el Agua

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

Most visitors walk to the viewpoint on top of the calcified waterfall before returning to the pools. But this is not the actual hike.

During my visit, there was no clear sign marking the beginning of the trail. But keep an eye out for a path taking you downhill. The Maps.me or AllTrails apps will you show you exactly where you need to go.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Looking back at the pools and the formations below

The 2.6 km loop trail could be categorized as ‘easy,’ though conditions can vary greatly depending on recent weather. While I’d eventually return to the pool area to find it packed, I only encountered several other people throughout the entire hike.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

The loop trail consists of a mix of a dirt path and concrete steps. In addition to the quiet and the scenic views of the surrounding mountains, a highlight of the hike is getting to view some of the calcified formations from below. 

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

The ancient Zapotecs are said to have used some of these lower levels for irrigation centuries ago. Supposedly, some ruins have even been discovered in nearby caves, though they don’t seem to be accessible to the common visitor. 

But who knows what future excavations around here may uncover.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

Finally reaching the end of the loop, you’ll find yourself back on the concrete path near the entrance to the site. From here, you can head back to the pools or return to the parking lot for the ride back to Oaxaca.

All in all, Hierve el Agua is a worthwhile visit, as long as you’re not expecting something too large and with tons of activities. But if you only have a day in the Mitla area and are looking for somewhere scenic but less touristy, you might want to consider Yagul as an alternative.

Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua Oaxaca

Additional Info

The easiest way to get to Hierve el Agua would be with a tour. Conveniently, many tours also include other popular sites nearby.

This tour, for example, will take you to Hierve el Agua in addition to the Tree of Tule, the ruins of Mitla and even a stop at a mezcal distillery.

But what about those who still prefer to get there independently?

Despite being one of Oaxaca’s most popular day trips, Hierve el Agua can be a pain to get to on your own. First, you will have to get to the city Mitla. If you’re staying near the Zócalo, you can find buses for Mitla at the Central de Abasto station, also known as the ‘2nd Class Bus Station.’

For those staying further north, you can find transport on Highway 190 a little bit east of the baseball stadium. While I’d read about public buses, I went to Mitla on a few different occasions and only ever saw shared taxis.

Wait around long enough and you should see a car with ‘Mitla’ written on the window. The standard price for the hour-long trip is $40 MXN per person.

While reaching Mitla is easy enough, the travertines still take another 45 minutes or so from there. Normally, you’re supposed to be able to find a colectivo (in this case more like a truck), right by where the shared taxis from Oaxaca drop you off. (Look up Camionetas Hierva el Agua on Google Maps.) These should cost around $75 MXN per person.

But since the trucks will only depart when full, I’ve read plenty of stories by people who were so tired of waiting that they paid the driver extra so they could finally get moving.

In my case, anticipating big crowds at Hierve el Agua, I made sure to arrive in Mitla around 8:30 or so. And while I was prepared for a fairly long wait inside the truck, I was surprised to find no truck at all upon my arrival!

I waited around on the sidewalk for another 20 minutes or so, but there was no vehicle in sight. I realized some other people standing nearby were tourists too, so we got talking with a local taxi driver. But he wanted 500 pesos for the journey and he wouldn’t budge on the price.

Shortly after, another two tourists arrived, and we decided to split the cost of the taxi, each of us paying $100 MXN each. While I got lucky, it was all a bigger hassle and expense than I’d anticipated.

I’m still not sure what time the colectivos to Hierve el Agua actually start running, but we did see them waiting for tourists upon our return to Mitla.

With all things considered, even if you’re the type who normally prefers to do things independently, a tour is probably the best option for this day trip.

Oaxaca is not a very large city, and as long as you’re staying relatively central, you can easily get around on foot. Many look for accommodation near the central square, or Zócalo, which is indeed a good location. Popular hotels here include Hotel Casona Oaxaca and La Catrina del Alcala.

If you can, an even more ideal location than the Zócalo would be a bit further north near the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán or El Llano park. While still very central, I consider this to be a nicer area than that of the Zócalo, (Oaxaca is so compact, though, that the two areas are just 15 minutes apart on foot.)

A popular affordable hotel around here is Posada Don Mario.

Alternatively, the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco are very popular places to stay and are within walking distance of the historical center. A highly-rated hotel in Xochimilco is Hotel Fortin Plaza, and in Jalatlaco, Hotel Cazomalli Oaxaca.

Further north, Reforma is another popular district. Mision de Los Angeles would offer easy access to all of the city’s main areas.


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