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Oaxaca’s Petrified Waterfalls Debate: Is It Tourism Or Exploitation?

The site is unique, receiving thousands of tourists each year. But local inhabitants feel cheated out of promised money.

Oaxaca, Mexico, is a state full of natural wonders.

From its gastronomy to its panoramas, Oaxaca tourists can find heaven on Earth there. One of those without-equal sights is in the municipality of San Lorenzo Albarradas: the famed petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua.

Ancient Zapotecs built the irrigation system in the area more than 2,500 years ago, and it is now part of the National Heritage of Mexico.

Because of the vast amount of calcium carbonate the water gushes from the mountain’s interior, it gets calcified when it enters in contact with air. That is the reason behind the particular look of the Hierve el Agua’s mountains.

There are three such waterfalls. In tow, the water falls vertically; in the third, it falls diagonally. It is possible to hear the water from outside the mountains, and the tallest 197 feet high!

The mountain’s minerals calcify the water, making the petrified waterfalls. (Analuisa Gamboa/Unsplash)

The petrified waterfalls are a remarkable natural phenomenon — only Turkey has something like it. It consists of three mountains with several stepped, frozen pools, a by-product of the running water that runs through it. The water in the area has a unique characteristic: It has a high content of calcium carbonate.

The region is extremely important to the state’s tourism.

However, the waterfalls were closed in March 2020. Although officially the waterfalls were closed due to the pandemic, inhabitants believe landowners closed them down due to a lack of income. Moreover, the indigenous community says it has not received the promised money since the park was first opened in 2006.

There are natural pools across the region. During the dry season, the pools are crystaline and a turquoise color. During the rainy season, they overflow and the water has a greenish tint to it.

There are pools of water on the top of the mountain. (Tamara Garcevic/Unsplash)

To get to Hierve el Agua, tourists have to take the bus from either Oaxaca City or Mitla. Different services offer trips to Hierve el Agua, Mitla, Teotitlan del Valle, the Tule tree, and the various mezcal distilleries throughout the region. In Hierve el Agua, tourists can find natural springs.

Authorities recommend visitors enter the springs, although it is not prohibited. The water is fresh and bubbly. It is possible to gaze upon the frozen waterfalls from the pools, despite them being 1.2 miles away. It’s better to travel with a local guide, which makes hiking easier.

There are several ecotourism trips dedicated only to discovering Oaxacan cuisine.

If someone wants to continue their sightseeing tour after enjoying the waterfall’s summit view, the nearby town of Ocotlan awaits. A small artist town, Ocotlan contains both a former monk priory and a traditional Oaxacan market.

A short journey to the north is the village of Teotitlan del Valle, famous for its talented weavers. It is one of Mexico’s most substantial producers of textile products.

From there, one can reach Mitla (which means “underworld” or “place of the Dead”). It is an archeological zone in use between 750 and 1521, located in the homonymous “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town).

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez; edited by Fern Siegel)

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