A visit to Hierve el Agua makes for an excellent day trip from Oaxaca City. The site features beautiful naturally occurring rock structures, a swimming pool, and stunning views of the surrounding hills. Several kilometers of hiking trails wind their way through the area. In this guide, I explain, step-by-step, how to visit Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City independently and without a tour. I also outline a few interesting sites to visit in the surrounding area.
What is Hierve el Agua?
Hierve el Agua is a geological site located in the state of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. The site contains a unique series of natural rock formations. From a distance, these formations look a lot like waterfalls. Because of this, they are often described as petrified waterfalls (cascadas petrificadas in spanish.) The name Hierve el Agua means ‘the water boils’ in Spanish.
Along with the rock formations, Hierve el Agua also contains several kilometers of hiking trails and some beautiful swimming pools where you can relax in the cool water overlooking the surrounding hills.
How was Hierve el Agua Formed?
These formations were formed by small amounts of spring water flowing over a cliff. An event which took place over the course of several thousand years. The spring water, which is saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals, exits the ground at the top of the cliff. It then flows over the edge. As the water flows down, mineral deposits are left behind on the side of the cliff. Over the years, these deposits built up, layer by layer. This natural phenomenon happens in the same way that stalactites form in underground caves.
Calcium carbonate is the most abundant mineral found in the formation. This mineral produces the white color which makes up the majority of the structure. Traces of iron, sulfur, silver, magnesium, and barium are also found at the site. These add beautiful shades of red, green, and brown to the formation.
The water that flows out of the ground is not boiling as the name suggests. In fact, it’s not even hot. The water exits the ground at about 72-81 degrees Fahrenheit (22-27 degrees Celsius.)
The open area at the top of the cliff where the four main springs bubble out of the ground is called the amphitheater. Here, there are a number of small natural pools and two artificial pools made for swimming. Near the top of the cliff, you will see several smaller roped off sections where the water bubbles right out of the ground and flows over the edge of the cliff. The drop from the top of the main falls is about 50 meters.
The site is not all natural. Starting in the 1990s the government began making improvements to the site. This was done to attract more tourists. Changing rooms, bathrooms, and some small bungalows were built on the site. Two artificial pools were also built where people can swim and enjoy the cool water. Due to the mineral content, the water appears a beautiful shade of turquoise.
The main pool features an infinity wall where the spring water flows over the edge. Because the pool is constantly being fed with fresh water from the ground, it is constantly overflowing. This water continues down the cliff and adds to the rock formation below which is still growing. You can even see the mineral buildup in the bottom of the pool itself. This picturesque pool overlooks the surrounding mountains.
How to Get to Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City
Hierve el Agua is located about 70 kilometers (about 44 miles) east of Oaxaca City. Most everyone visiting Hierve el Agua starts from Oaxaca City. You have four options to get there.
1. Take a bus then a colectivo (shared taxi)
This is the cheapest option. Hierve el Agua is easy to reach independently from Oaxaca. Below, I’ll describe this process step-by-step.
2. Take an organized tour
This is the easiest option. It requires no planning on your part. Hierve el Agua tours can be booked through most hostels and hotels and at many tour agencies around the city. The full-day tour will also include visits to several other sites along the way. They will probably stop in the city of Mitla, at a mescal factory, and the Tule Tree. If you are traveling solo, this is probably the best option though it will be slightly more expensive than traveling independently.
3. Hire a private driver
This is the most convenient and fastest option. It is also the most expensive. Pretty much any taxi driver will be thrilled to take you as this is an all-day fare. Be sure to negotiate hard when shopping around for a driver. You may also want to ask your hotel or hostel if they have a driver that they recommend. If you hire a driver, the fee for parking at the site is 50 pesos for the day.
4. Rent a car and drive yourself
You can simply rent a car in Oaxaca City and drive yourself to Hierve el Agua. The drive will take between 1.5 and 2 hours depending on the route you take. The best route is to drive through Mitla and turn off on the road heading toward San Lorenzo. Follow this road and it will take you to Hierva el Agua. Even though this long way around, the road is in much better condition. It is also safer. You avoid the unpaved mountainous section you would have to drive if you turned off in Mitla. This route takes about 30 minutes longer.
How to Get to Hierve el Agua by Bus and Colectivo
This is the cheapest way to get to Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City. The ride will take about 2-3 hours depending on how long you have to wait for the bus in Oaxaca. You may also have to wait for a colectivo to fill up with passengers when transferring in Mitla.
Step 1: Oaxaca to Mitla Bus
The first part of this trip takes you to Mitla, a town about an hour east of Oaxaca City. There are two places where you can catch a bus to Mitla. The ride costs 18 pesos (about 90 cents.)
- The 2nd class bus terminal- This station is located at Central de Abasto, 68090 Oaxaca, Mexico. When you arrive at the terminal, just tell the attendant that you want to go to Mitla and they will point you in the right direction. This is a popular route. Buses are leaving many times throughout the day. I don’t believe there is a set schedule. The buses just leave when they’re full enough and begin driving through the city collecting more passengers along the way.
- Along Boulevard Jose Vasconcelos- This is the main road just north of downtown. It is also called Highway 190. Mitla to Oaxaca buses will stop along this road picking up and dropping off passengers. You can wait along the road and flag one down as it comes by. You can identify the bus by the sign in the front window. It will read ‘Mitla.’ Buses run up and back between Oaxaca and Mitla all day, every day.
Once you arrive in Mitla, exit the bus. The driver will stop in the center of town.
Tip: Buses traveling this route are 2nd class. They are crowded and don’t have much room for luggage. Overall, the buses are safe but pickpocketing can be a problem. It’s best not to bring too much gear on this trip. Just a day bag is fine. Leave your valuables in your hotel where they’re safe.
For more info on this trip, check out my full bus guide here.
Step 2: Shared Transport from Mitla to Hierve el Agua
Next, you want to catch a shared taxi, van, or pickup truck (camioneta) from Mitla to Hierve el Agua. You will see drivers parked on the side of the road holding signs or yelling to indicate where they are going. Some will likely approach you offering a ride to Hierve el Agua.
The fare should be about 40 pesos (around $2) per person. They will probably try to overcharge so you may have to negotiate a bit. Don’t get in the vehicle until you have agreed on a price. With more people, you have more bargaining power. The ride takes about an hour.
Because you have to take a colectivo, the vehicle won’t leave until it’s full. Vans and trucks hold about 8 people. Taxis carry around 4. This trip will be faster if you are traveling with a group because you won’t have to wait for more people to arrive. If you’re traveling alone, you may be waiting for a while. Unfortunately, this could take hours if you’re unlucky.
Tips: If the wait for shared transport to fill up is too long, the other option is to pay for a private taxi. This can turn out to be almost as cheap as a colectivo if you have a few people to split the cost. When negotiating a ride in any kind of transport, you may want to ask if they have air conditioning.
I made this ride with a group of people that I met at the hostel. We had enough people to fill up a camioneta so there was no waiting around.
Try to get a seat with a view in the colectivo because the ride from Mitla to Hierve el Agua is very scenic. You wind your way up a gravel road through the mountains and desert for about an hour. The landscape is rugged and unique. The road is in poor condition so be prepared to be shaken around quite a bit.
Note: I have read reports where other travelers were stopped and charged a 10 peso (50 cent) ‘road access fee.’ This is basically a scam run by locals to make a bit of money. If you run into this, you’ll probably have to just pay it so you can pass. My vehicle never stopped for this so maybe I just got lucky or maybe they just included it in the fare.
I ended up riding to Hierve el Agua in a camioneta which is just a pickup truck with seating in the back. The views and fresh air made the ride memorable. The ride can get quite hot as there is no air conditioning but the breeze made it tolerable.
Before leaving Oaxaca, I bought a couple of beers for the ride. By the time I cracked them open, they were getting warm but they did make the ride pass a bit faster. You may want to consider doing the same.
Arriving at Hierve el Agua
Once you arrive, an attendant will come over to your vehicle to collect the entry fee which costs 25 pesos (about $1.25). After you arrive, you may need to use the bathroom. The charge is 3 pesos (15 cents).
From there, you can begin exploring the site. I recommend you just take a walk around first and get the lay of the land. The main area (the amphitheater) isn’t very big. You can see they layout from the top near the entrance.
Things to Do at Hierve el Agua
Go for a hike
After viewing the top of the site, hike down to the bottom to get a close up view of the rock formations. The trail starts to the right of the amphitheater. You have two hiking options:
- The short hike- Simply walk down to the bottom of the main formation and return the same way. This short hike should take about 15-30 minutes depending on how much time you spend taking photos and enjoying the scenery.
- The long hike- Start on the same trail as the short hike but keep going. The long hike takes you all the way to the bottom of the canyon and past both sets of rock formations. You can walk right up to the wall and touch it. The trail winds around to the bottom of the canyon for several kilometers. You end up hiking up the other side of the site near the main pool. This hike takes about 1-2 hours. Make sure you’re prepared as it can get pretty intense. We had to climb down a ladder and over some big rocks and trees on the trail. Some men were working on one section when I was there so maybe conditions have improved since then.
Tip: If you plan to take the longer hike, make sure that you come prepared. Bring some water, snacks, and sunblock. While the hike isn’t too long, it is pretty intense and the weather will be hot. Be sure to wear some decent shoes as well. I just brought a 50 peso pair of flip flops that I bought in Mexico City. I made it but my feet and sandals were pretty torn up afterward.
Go for a Swim
After a long hike out in the sun, you’ll want to take advantage of the pool. The water bubbles right out of the ground at the perfect temperature for swimming. You can change into your bathing suit in the free changing rooms located near the parking lot. There are two man-made pools at Hierve el Agua where you can swim:
- The big pool- This main pool features an infinity edge with a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Sitting on the edge and enjoying the view is a great way to spend an afternoon. The maximum depth is around 2 meters.
- The small pool- This much less frequently used pool lies below the main pool close to the cliff.
Lay Out in the Sun
After your swim, you may want to warm up in the sun and dry off. The water gets a bit chilly after a while. The area surrounding the pools is flat and smooth. Great for laying out and relaxing. Here you can enjoy the view and work on your tan.
Tip: Be sure to wear sunblock as the sun is pretty intense.
Food and Drink at Hierve el Agua
When you get hungry for lunch, you have a few options. Near the entry gate of the site, you can find a couple of street food style stands set up where you can buy tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and several Oaxacan specialties. Nearby, a couple of stands are set up where you can buy sodas, beer, chips, nuts, fresh fruit, and other various snacks.
Prices at these places were surprisingly reasonable. I paid 50 pesos (about $2.50) for a big cheesy quesadilla. This is about the same that you would pay back in town. No bad. Drink and snack prices are reasonable as well.
Tip: Even though food is available on site, options are limited. If you’re planning to spend the whole day, you may want to consider making a stop at a supermarket in Oaxaca City before you leave town. You can stock up on food, drinks, fruits, and snacks for the day. You’ll save a bit of money this way and have more options.
Spending the Night at Hierve el Agua
If you wish to spend the night at Hierve el Agua, you have two options: Camping and renting a cabana.
The biggest benefit to spending the night is that you get to enjoy the site both late that night after the crowd leaves, and early the following morning before anyone else arrives. You’ll have the place to yourself. You will also catch a killer sunset and sunrise over the surrounding mountains. As I said earlier, the views in the area are spectacular.
Tip: Be sure to stay up until after dark so you can enjoy the night sky. Because the site is so far outside of the city and up in the mountains, there is no light pollution. The view of the stars will be breathtaking. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the milky way and spot some constellations if you know where to look.
Camping at Hierve el Agua
When you enter the site, just tell the guy at the entry gate who collects the fee that you plan to camp. He will either collect the additional 50 pesos then or you can pay later in the day if you prefer. I have heard that sometimes they forget and you get to stay the night for free.
Camping is a great way to save on accommodation cost if you’re on a tight budget. 50 pesos is less than you’ll pay at any hostel in Oaxaca City.
Camping tip: Make sure you have a decent sleeping bag or blanket to keep you warm at night when camping. When the sun goes down, it can get quite cold. You are at an elevation of 5800 feet and in a desert so nights will be cold even though the days are hot.
These days, I always travel with a tent just in case a camping opportunity comes up. Unfortunately, I left my tent at the hostel when I went to Hierve el Agua. I didn’t know camping was an option.
Renting a Cabana
If you didn’t bring a tent, you also have the option to rent a cabana for 160 pesos (about $8.25) This is also a reasonably priced option if you wish to spend the night. Reservations aren’t required. I don’t believe they’re even possible.
Usually, these don’t fill up but you’ll want to inquire and pay for your cabana when you arrive just in case. You don’t want to get stranded after the last minibus already left for the night.
Other Stops Along the Way
On your way back to Oaxaca from Hierve el Agua, there are a few interesting stops to make on the way if you have the time.
El Tule Tree
The Tule tree (El Árbol del Tule in Spanish) is claimed to be the widest tree in the world with a diameter of about 46 feet (14 meters.) The tree is a Montezuma Cypress. It is located at a church in the town of Santa Maria del Tule about 6 miles (9 kilometers) east of Oaxaca City.
To get to the tree, simply tell your bus driver that you want to get off at the Tule tree when you board the bus. He will drop you off outside of the church where the tree lives. You can make this stop either on your way to Hierve el Agua or on your way back to Oaxaca. After your visit, simply wait on the main highway for the next bus going in your direction.
If you’re headed to Hierve el Agua, you’ll catch the bus going east toward Mitla. If you’re heading back to Oaxaca City, you’ll catch the bus going west.
Visit a Mezcal Distillery
To learn how mezcal is made and enjoy some free samples consider stopping by a distillery. During the tour, you’ll have the chance to taste fresh agave and learn a bit about the manufacturing process. After the tour, you can choose to buy your own bottle of authentic mezcal to enjoy at home or back in Oaxaca. Prices are reasonable, starting at about 100 pesos for a small bottle. You have a few options of distilleries to visit between Oaxaca and Mitla.
- Mezcal El Rey de Matatlán- This one gets the best reviews. They have a nice selection of mezcals made on site. They also offer free samples. I stopped here and found it pretty interesting and worthwhile. They are located at Km. 26.5 Crucero de, Teotitlan del Valle, Carretera Internacional, 70461 Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico.
- Mezcal Beneva S.A. de C.V.- Another nearby distillery. They are located at Carretera Oaxaca Itsmo km.22 s/n, Macuilxochitl de Artigas Carranza, 71230 San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, Oax., Mexico.
- Fabrica de Mezcal Don Isac- This one is located outside of Mitla a bit further east. You’ll probably have to take a taxi to get here. Every driver should know how to get there.
Visit the Archaeological Sites in Mitla
The Mitla ruins were built by the Zapotec people. This site was used as a religious center. It is considered the second most important ruins in the state of Oaxaca after Monte Alban.
You might as well stop in Mitla to visit the Archeological site as you’ll be passing through anyway on your way to Hierve el Agua. The ruins are located in the north of the town of Mitla. From where the bus drops you off, you can walk or take a taxi to get to the ruins.
Final Thoughts on Hierve el Agua
A side trip to Hierve el Agua is a great way to spend a day or two away from Oaxaca City. The mountains are beautiful, the water is refreshing, and the rock formations are unique. In fact, they are one of only two formations of that type anywhere in the world. The other, called Pamukkale, is located in southwestern Turkey.
Have you visited Pamukkale in Turkey? How does it compare to Hierve el Agua? Comment below with your thoughts. I’d be interested to hear a comparison.
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