Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico is an outstanding area of true natural wonders, the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before. Greeting the intrepid traveller at the end of a somewhat bumpy yet incredibly adventurous journey is a jaw-dropping site of plunge pools and petrified waterfalls, making this easily one of Oaxaca’s most impressive attractions. But, given the arduous journey to reach Mexico’s Hierve el Agua, not to mention its meteoric rise in popularity, is it really worth the effort to get to?
In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about making this traveller’s pilgrimage, so you can decide for yourself whether this bucket list destination really needs to be on your bucket list at all.
Table of Contents
What Is Hierve el Agua?
Hierve el Agua is an outstanding rock formation resembling a cascading waterfall on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico. The name means ‘the water boils‘ in Spanish, due to the abundance of hot springs from which the petrified waterfalls are formed. Although, you’ll not experience much of the hot water for yourself. The pools you swim in are cold.
The calcified cliffs rise up to 90 metres high in places. The petrified waterfall effect is caused by excess calcium carbonate in the spring water. The springs occur naturally at the top and the minerals are deposited as the water slowly trickles over the edge. It then creates the incredible white waterfall rock formations we see today.
Cascada Grande and Cascada Chica
Hierve el Agua is made up of two principal rock formations. They are Cascada Grande and Cascada Chica. Cascada Grande (large waterfall) is the largest and more impressive of the two. It’s the petrified waterfall you’ll visit on the hike around the site. The colourful columns stand strikingly in the landscape. Indeed, from the base, it’s difficult to tell whether they flow from the top or rise up from the ground. Cascada Chica (small waterfall) may be smaller, but it’s the wider of the two. It’s also known as the Amphitheatre and is where the swimming pools are located. It’s also the easiest to access, being closest to the main entrance.
The waters are thought to possess healing qualities because of the high mineral content at Hierve el Agua. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of human interaction at Hierve el Agua dating back some 2,500 years ago. It was likely a sacred site for the Zapotecs.
FYI – Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca is also known as Cascadas de Sal (Salt Waterfalls), Cascadas Petrificadas (Petrified Waterfalls) and Cascadas Pétreas (Rock Waterfalls).
Where Is Hierve el Agua?
Hierve el Agua lies within the small municipality of San Lorenzo Albarradas, in Oaxaca, Mexico. The incredible petrified waterfalls and pools are most commonly reached from the city of Oaxaca. Oaxaca City lies 460km southeast of Mexico City, within the state of Oaxaca. The journey, if visiting Hierve el Agua independently from Oaxaca, is fairly straightforward, if just a little arduous.
How to Get to Hierve el Agua Independently
Below, we’ll describe your options on how to get from Oaxaca City to Hierve el Agua independently, which is surprisingly straightforward.
Step 1: Take the Bus
The best way to get to Hierve el Agua in Mexico is to base yourself in Oaxaca. From Oaxaca, you’ll take a bus to the nearby town of Mitla. Buses leave Oaxaca from Central de Abasto 68090 or along Boulevard Jose Vasconcelos at Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos (Highway 190). Dan and I caught the bus at around 7am from Central de Abasto and had no problems. The bus from Oaxaca to Mitla usually costs around $20–30MXN ($1–2USD) per person for a one-way trip. The journey takes around one hour to reach Mitla.
Step 2: Catch a Camioneta
From Mitla, you’ll then take a camioneta to get to Hierve el Agua. A camioneta is a sort of pickup truck, with benched seats in the back and a cram-as-many-people-on-as-possible system in place. It’s a straightforward mode of transport and easy to suss out. Once you exit Mitla bus station, you’ll find you’re either hollered by a driver to book a seat on his truck, or, you’ll see the signs on top of the camionetas reading ‘Hierve el Agua’. Just walk over to them and someone will help you out.
The important thing to note about the camionetas isn’t how to catch one, but rather when they’ll leave. Typically, drivers will not leave Mitla for Hierve el Agua (and vice versa) until their van is full. Fair enough. As we were first to show up for the bumpy ride, we were told there’d need to be 7–8 people before we left. So, we had a bit of a wait. In reality, we waited until 14 of us were crammed in the back, and then at last, we set off. All in all, having arrived around 8am, Dan and I waited over an hour for the camioneta to leave.
The price of the camioneta is $75MXN ($4.50USD) per person and takes around 45 minutes. If you get bored waiting for the camioneta to fill, you can always negotiate with your fellow travellers and the driver to pay extra each to leave with fewer people. Alternatively, you can take a taxi. But, you’ll be looking at a fare of around $600MXN ($35USD) rather than $75MXN. Still, if you can split this between four people, it’s not a bad option.
You return the same way, by picking up a camioneta from the same place you disembark at the entrance to Hierve el Agua. It will drop you back at Mitla bus station, where you can then catch the bus back to Oaxaca.
All in all, from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua, took us around 3 hours, and similar to return.
Renting a Car in Mexico
If you’ve decided to rent a car in Oaxaca, Mexico, then you can of course drive yourself to Hierve el Agua. But, be warned, the dirt roads are unpaved and unforgiving. There is a large parking lot once you arrive, so you won’t need to worry about where to leave the car.
If you don’t have your own set of wheels and want to hire something, we recommend hiring a car using Rentalcars.com. You’ll find a variety of cars on Rental Cars, which are very easy to book online. Personally, Dan and I have used RentalCars plenty of times and never had any problems.
Useful Things to Know Before You Go
So, now you know how to get to Hierve el Agua and see Oaxaca’s incredible petrified waterfall, let’s look at a few useful things to know before you visit.
Hierve el Agua Opening Times
Hierve el Agua is open 7am to 5pm every day.
Is Hierve el Agua Sometimes Closed?
Yes, it’s true that Hierve el Agua can close. And, for long stretches at a time. This is usually down to disputes between the local indigenous communities and the government, leading to protests and road closures. The disputes centre around who has control over Hierve el Agua. The government has been accused of not passing on vast amounts of revenue raised from entrance fees. This is supposed to help support the impoverished local communities.
Back at the beginning of 2021, the local community of San Lorenzo Albarradas closed access to Hierve el Agua. This was over disputes to do with mass tourism to the area but with very little benefit to the local community. The closure lasted for several months and many tourists to Oaxaca at the time were left very disappointed. Eventually, the issues were resolved. Stricter structures were then put in place, especially regarding tour companies taking groups to the site. Similar closures were noted in 2005, 2007 and 2014.
Even if you plan to visit Hierve el Agua independently, it’s never a bad idea to check in with a local tourist office, or with other travellers you meet, as to whether the site is open. Additionally, if you’re unsure, booking a tour to Hierve el Agua eliminates any doubt, as they will know whether it’s possible to get there or not.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Hierve el Agua?
The entrance fee to visit Hierve el Agua is $50MXN ($3USD), delightfully cheap in comparison to some of the more overpriced Mexican tourist hotspots (mentioning no names… ahem, Chichén Itzá). Add to that the $75MXN to take the camioneta (each way), plus the cheap bus fare from Oaxaca to Mitla and back, and you’re looking at around $240MXN ($14USD) per person for the day trip.
The Best Time to Visit Hierve el Agua
In terms of fewer crowds, you’ll want to try and time your visit to Hierve el Agua first thing in the morning or last thing in the day. Midday is the busiest. But, with full sun on the pools and Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall, you really do get to see them at their finest, during the middle of the day.
In terms of weather, Mexico experiences just two seasons – a wet season and a dry season. The dry season lasts from October to April, whereas the wet season runs from May to September, with September often seeing the most rainfall. To avoid any sudden downpours, you’ll want to visit in the dry season. But, this also coincides with more tourists, with December to January often considered peak season. We visited at the end of January and found the pools to be busy, but not overcrowded.
Of course, visiting during periods with more tourists means you can always rely on more people showing up to fill the camioneta!
Facilities at Hierve el Agua
There is a toilet block and changing rooms at the Hierve el Agua pools. Take your pesos as you’ll be charged for the convenience. Ahead of the pools, as you walk down from where the camioneta drops you off, is a wealth of stalls selling souvenirs, food and drinks. We took our own snacks, but you’ll find plenty to pick at if you get hungry. If you do spend at the stalls, you’ll be supporting the local communities.
Things to Do at Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca
So, now you’re at Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, what to do? Well, the main things are to paddle/swim in the pools, hike around Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall, take photographs and simply relax with a picnic.
1. Swimming at Hierve el Agua
At the pools, you’ll find plenty of bathing space to set up as you lounge around the picturesque puddles of blue-hued water.
Not all the pools are available to swim in, only the main pool on the cliff edge. Also, to the right of this infinity pool are some gorgeous little irregular-shaped shallow pools. They’re great for paddling in or hopping around the salt edges. Otherwise, the rest of the pools are simply to look at. It makes for a nice balance actually, being able to enjoy the uninterrupted views of some pools, whilst enjoying the excellent swimming location of others.
2. Hiking at Hierve el Agua
Hiking down to the bottom of Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua was our favourite part. Unbelievably, not everyone will do the hike, so it’s an opportunity to escape the crowds. It’s a steep climb down (and back up), but you’re following maintained footpaths and it’s a simple circular route, taking around an hour. You’ll also find plenty of great photo ops along the way, as you view Oaxaca’s petrified waterfalls from different angles.
Looking up at Cascada Grande from the base is absolutely jaw-dropping. Never have we seen anything quite like this on all our travels. From the main viewing spot at the bottom of Cascada Grande, the trail continues a flat path along the edge of the rock formations and back towards Cascada Chica. You get some great views of the underside of the Amphitheatre along this hike, as well as enjoying all the different colours of the rocks depending on the minerals found in them such as silver, iron and calcium carbonate.
3. Photographs at Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is full of fantastic photo opportunities. But, Dan and I particularly enjoyed the salt pan-like pools and the base of Cascada Grande. We were lucky to visit with a rather considerate bunch, where we all took turns to have solo shots against the splendid mountain background. The main pool for swimming in is not quite so photo friendly due to the volume of people swimming and sitting around the edges. But, that doesn’t matter, because, despite its infinity pool edge, it’s not as spectacular looking and as the shallow pools next door anyway.
4. Shop the Stalls
Before entering Hierve el Agua, you’ll pass by countless food, drink and souvenir stalls. There are even a handful of restaurants. Not only will you find little trinkets to remember your visit by and find a refreshing drink to enjoy under the midday sun, but, spending a few pesos here is also a great way of supporting the local communities. In addition, given how close the stalls are to where you’ll re-catch the camioneta, they’re also a great way to pass the time whilst waiting for your transport back to Mitla.
Is Hierve el Agua Worth Visiting?
In short, yes. But, truth be told, Dan and I were left a little underwhelmed by the expectations we had for Hierve el Agua. That isn’t to say the area isn’t breathtakingly beautiful, because without a doubt it is. But, there was just something about the day and the business of the pools that took something away from the natural beauty.
In many ways, we were far more impressed by Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall and the short hike showing off the calcite cliffs in all their glory. The pools, however, were great to photograph and their cliff-top locations with incredible vistas were very enjoyable. But, in terms of outstanding places to bathe, they weren’t our favourite. The pool designated for swimming can be a little overcrowded and the water a tad mirky looking.
We spent a few hours max at Hierve el Agua, and that was just enough for us. Then, we were more than ready to make the adventurous journey back. Luckily, there were some other travellers who had the same thought, so we didn’t have to wait too long for our transportation to leave.
Since there are only two petrified waterfalls in the world, the other being Pamukkale (Cotton Castle) in Turkey, then we think that’s an outstanding reason alone to pay a visit to Hierve el Agua, Mexico. Still, in many ways, you’ll come for the pools, but you’ll stay for the petrified waterfalls.
Hierve el Agua Oaxaca Tour
Despite being a little long-winded, the journey from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua is actually very straightforward, with the local camionetas poised and ready for the day’s influx of tourists. But, if the idea of getting to Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca independently sounds like too much hassle, then you can always book a tour from town. Oaxaca is a very popular stop on any travel itinerary through Mexico, so you won’t struggle to find a tour office offering the day trip.
The beauty of a day tour is that it usually sets off nice and early from Oaxaca, meaning you’ll arrive at Hierve el Agua much earlier than independently, and by doing so, hopefully, beat the crowds. An Hierve el Agua Oaxaca tour generally lasts the full day, with a 6am pickup time. The tours will also often visit other natural or cultural attractions. Each tour company might vary their itineraries slightly, so you might want to shop around.
As we visited Hierve el Agua independently, we can’t personally recommend an organised tour from Oaxaca to the petrified waterfalls. But, we used Lescas Co Travel Agency located here in central Oaxaca to visit Monte Albán and are very impressed with the service they provided. They arrange tours to Hierve el Agua too.
Alternatively, you can book online via agencies like GetYourGuide.
Below, we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding visiting Hierve el Agua petrified waterfall in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Is Hierve el Agua Always Open?
Hierve el Agua is usually open every day, year-round. But, it does close during periods of local dispute. So, it’s always best to ask around and check for the most up-to-date information before travelling. Feel free to add the dates you visit in the comments below to help other travellers out.
Can You Swim in Hierve el Agua Oaxaca?
You certainly can. But not in all the pools.
What Does Hierve el Agua Mean?
Hierve el Agua in English means ‘the water boils’.
How Many Petrified Waterfalls Are in the World?
There are two petrified waterfalls in the world, one is Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, and the other is Pamukkale in Turkey.
How Far Is Hierve el Agua From Oaxaca City?
Hierve el Agua petrified waterfall is about 70 km east of Oaxaca City in Mexico.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca, Mexico
As the majority of you will visit Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca, Mexico, we’ll take a look at some of the best budget, mid-range and luxury accommodation options in the city.
- Budget – Andaina Youth Hostel: this is one of the most reviewed hostels in Oaxaca. Backpackers particularly enjoy the rooftop garden, great location and communal amenities at Andaina Youth Hostel.
- Mid-range – Capital O Posada La Casa de la Tia: Dan and I stayed at Capital O Posada La Casa de la Tia and enjoyed the large room, private bathroom and communal courtyard. The location was fantastic and we would definitely stay again.
- Luxury – Quinta Real Oaxaca: for a little slice of luxury in beautiful Oaxaca, then stay at Quinta Real Oaxaca. The historical building enjoys colonial-style décor, a swimming pool and very comfortable rooms.
Staying at Hierve el Agua
It’s possible to spend the night at Hierve el Agua, Mexico. Onsite, there are a handful of cabins that are commonly available. We’ve heard you enquire and book on arrival as there’s no online system for securing a cabin. Aside from getting to spend the night at this extraordinary place, it’s also one of the best ways to beat the crowds and enjoy Hierve el Agua all to yourself. I can only imagine how spectacular Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall looks in the rising and setting sun!
We’ve also heard it’s possible to spend the night in your van if you’re driving. However, as we haven’t personally done either, we can’t fully comment on the logistics of them. But, by all accounts, it’s a turn-up and see-on-the-day kinda experience, which many of you may be happy to do anyway.
What Should You Bring to Hierve el Agua?
These are our gear essentials for visiting Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico.
- Swimming gear: it’s hot and there are pools, so this is a no-brainer.
- Quick-dry towel: we travel lightly, so a quick-dry towel is much more convenient for a day trip than sneaking the hostel/hotel’s bath towel out.
- Water shoes (aqua shoes): if you have them, they’ll certainly help protect your feet when exploring the salty edges of Hierve el Agua’s pools.
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: you’ll benefit from a sturdy pair of hiking boots on the steep walk down to the bottom of Oaxaca’s petrified waterfall.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a great value for money pair of convertible trousers.
You should also pack lunch, snacks, water and sunscreen. Also, remember to pack pesos. For a longer gear list, read our 66 Travel Items You Must Travel With. For a list of everything else you’d need for travelling, read our Packing Checklist.
Travel insurance is a real necessity, especially when travelling through Central America and getting a little off the beaten track.
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Dan and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
- Drone flying at Hierve el Agua: Hierve el Agua is a no-drone zone.
- Look out for vultures: lazing around on the cliff edges of Hierve el Agua you’ll likely spot plenty of vultures.
- Cash is king: be sure to carry cash, and small denominations at that. Bus and camioneta drivers will be unlikely to have the required change when you pull out some ridiculously large note.
- Other tours from Oaxaca: Oaxaca was one of our favourite places in Mexico, and there’s plenty to see and do. For some hassle-free tours, GetYourGuide offers some pretty great options.
If you notice any of the details in this post have changed, please leave us a comment below, to keep this trip up to date for fellow travellers.