Sunday, January 20, 2013

Petrified Waterfalls at Hierve el Agua: December 29, 2012

Hierve el Agua is a well-known mineral spring in a remote agricultural area in the Sierra Norte mountains. Water trickling down from the springs has built fantastic stone formations that look like waterfalls flowing down the cliff walls. It's about a two hour drive from the city of Oaxaca and a very popular day trip for tourists and locals alike.

With nine of us traveling together the simplest way to get there was to hire a van and driver. After seeing the route we took I was profoundly grateful that we hadn't tried to rent a car and drive ourselves: I'm pretty sure we'd still be lost in the Sierra Norte. About half the trip is on paved roads, but then you turn off and wind your way through the mountains, bumping through villages and dodging the donkeys grazing at the side of the road. The road goes so close to the buildings that in places we could look right in through the front door.
 When you arrive at the Hierve el Agua parking area you can go straight down to the pools or wander among the stalls selling food and drink. You're on a mountaintop near the equator, so the sun is strong, there's little shade, and a strong wind blows steadily, so wear a hat you can tie firmly to your head, slather on lots of sunscreen, and bring gallons of water. If you're going to try the trails down to the valley floor, you might want a stout walking stick, too. Me, I found myself wishing for a rope tow.
There's an easy hike (maybe ten minutes, if you stroll) out to an overlook that gives this view of the pools:
and some spectacular views out over the mountains.
Those are agave plants in flower, and the stalks are about 15 feet tall. Here's a human for scale:
 There's another spring on this overlook:
You can see where the name 'Hierve el Agua' comes from: it translates as "the water boils," which is not a reference to the temperature (the springs are very cold), but to the way it bubbles up in the pools.
A steep trail winds down the side of the cliff to the base, where you can get a really good look at the amazing rock formations. A good deal of the trail is giant stone steps, about 18" high, and fairly challenging. The hike back up left me wheezing, red-faced, and cranky as hell, but my younger, fitter cousins bounded right up. Caveat climber.
The 'waterfalls' are formed from calcium carbonate leached from the bedrock by rainwater. If you look closely, you can see tiny people at the right, which should give you some idea of how large those fins of rock are.
This area below the falls is a very popular photo op, even though it is barely wide enough to stand on and the dripping water makes the footing a little uncertain.
Not to be outdone by the locals, we took our turn posing. It's only a fifteen-foot drop at this point, after all.
The gentle spray from the "falls" was refreshing, and we started to think more seriously about the beautiful aqua pools back at the top of the cliff. There are two pools deep enough to swim in that were made by building a short wall on the slope to capture the spring water. The original walls are now covered in mineral deposits and blend in to the rock around them. 
A detail of the calcite formations along the edge of the swimming areas.
When we finally got back up to the top, we found the rest of Oaxaca had caught up with us. I guess the Saturday after Christmas is a popular time for family day trips! 
Off we scampered off to put our suits on: there is a changing area of sorts, although it doesn't have a door, so you are a bit at the mercy of other confused people. A tip about the toilets: it costs 2 pesos, and you won't get toilet paper until you pay. The you take the bucket that stands by the toilet door, fill it with water from the barrel, and take it in with you. After you do your business, use the water in your bucket to flush. If you don't bring the bucket in, you have to go back out and get it, which will totally gross out all the locals waiting in line.

After negotiating the cultural maze of the bathroom and changing area, I dangled my toes in the pool, ready to dive, and discovered that the water was just above freezing. "Warm springs" my fanny! All of us swim regularly in Maine, and we agreed this water was cold! The strong, steady wind that blows over the mountain doesn't help. Within minutes of easing in I had forgotten how hot, sweaty, and grumpy I had been on the climb and was trying to decide how long I had to stay in the water for it to count as having gone for a swim. Then I got distracted by the view.
 Eventually we all straggled out of the water, dried off, and sunned ourselves for a bit before climbing back in the van. On the way home I got to sit in the front seat, so of course I took photos for the whole trip.
It is a semi-desert climate, so enormous cacti abound.
Goatherd and flock in the foreground, road cut winding along the mountain in the rear.
And to finish off a beautiful day, on the way home we saw a rainbow below us in the valley.

Photography notes:

I finally realized that no matter what time you get up in the morning, the sun will be harsh and glaring on a mountaintop in southern Mexico. Doh. I'm pretty stingy about spending money on gear, but I'm about to break down and buy a polarizing filter. I'll keep you posted on what I get.


  1. What an amazing place. It reminded me of Pamukkale in Turkey!

    1. Wow, that is gorgeous! Turkey just climbed higher in my list of Places to See.

  2. Wow, gorgeous photos. I am looking forward to being in Oaxaca in a couple of months and Hierve el Agua is now extra high on the list thanks to your shots!

  3. I enjoyed looking and reading - a vicarious trip!