Oaxaca, Mexico, is a charming UNESCO World Heritage site less than three hours flight from Dallas. It is known for its art, history and indigenous culture.
Lesser known is the fact that Oaxaca is surrounded by mountains and many outdoor activities for the nature lover. Perhaps the most unique outdoor phenomenon near Oaxaca is Hierve El Agua (pronounced “hiervel-lagua”), a “petrified” waterfall, one of only two in the world and a site not to be missed. The other such site is in faraway Turkey. You can reach Hierve El Agua by car in about 75 minutes from Oaxaca.
The petrified waterfall is the result of water with a lot of minerals bubbling up from a mountainside. The water forms a pool where it bubbles up and evaporation of the water increases the mineral level in the water, turning it a yellow-green. When the water eventually falls over the edge of a mountain cliff, the water forms stalactites much as you would see in a cave, but these are out in the open. The long stalactites appear to be a waterfall on the mountainside. In this location, there are two such stalactite masses adjacent to each other.
You can hike down to the bottom of one of these waterfalls and look up at it. The hike down takes about five minutes from the lowest viewing point near the top. From the bottom, you can walk back up very steep stairs, which will take about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can hike back up to the other waterfall, and it will take about one hour.
Where the yellow-green water pools on the mountain, the water is said to be healthy, and people swim in it. The sediment is said to be good for the skin. Bring a bathing suit; changing rooms are available.
At several points you are able to see the water bubbling up from the ground. Although the meaning of the site is “boiling water,” the water bubbles up from the ground cold. It is forced to the surface by high pressure underground.
From the pool area, walk a newly-paved path with stairs for a view from the side of the petrified waterfall. It is a moderately difficult walk; it does provide hikers a decent challenge. Many find that getting into the pool after the hike is a rewarding way to cool off.
Getting to Hierve El Agua requires you to drive through several small Mexican towns. The final stretch of the road to Hierve El Agua is a dirt farm road. It can be steep in places and may have potholes, especially in rainy weather. I recommend that you go with a guide. A toll road leads to the dirt road. As you get closer to Hierve El Agua, one of the small towns levies another toll to drive through. You are stopped by a rope across the road. Then as you enter the site, Hierve El Agua itself has an entrance fee. If I were driving myself, I would suspect I was getting ripped off by all these stops asking for money; but that is not the case.
After visiting Hierve El Agua, if you have more energy, you should stop by one of the many family run mezcal distilleries on the road between the small towns. You can taste the product and learn the process. Along the road you will see cultivated agave, the main ingredient for mezcal.
A stop at the Tlacolula Market along the route is also a must, especially on Sundays when the market expands and indigenous women from the surrounding area come in native dress. Even on a regular day, there is an interesting covered market with delicious fruits and meats. If you are so inclined, buy meat and other desired ingredients and grill them yourself inside the market on provided grills. Freshly made tortillas are available to wrap it all up. Alternatively, there are many “comedores” that serve prepared meals.