The first time I saw a photograph of it, I remember feeling that I had to see Hierve el Agua in person. Nestled amid the rugged desert mountains of the state of Oaxaca stand two sheer cliffs that seem to melt, in yellow rivulets, into the valley below. For millennia, Hierve el Agua’s natural springs have calcified its travertine cliff faces, creating this illusion of a petrified waterfall. It is one of only a few natural wonders of its kind in the world (other calcified pool formations include terraced thermal springs in Pamukkale, Turkey and Sichuan, China). At the top of the falls, natural and man-made pools make for jaw-dropping views and a welcome place to cool off in Oaxaca’s punishing daytime sun.
But that was before March 2021, when the wonder of Hierve el Agua was closed off amid a decades-long conflict between the site’s neighboring indigenous communities and the Oaxacan government. I visited Oaxaca City—less than two hours west of Hierve el Agua—in late February on a 12-seat prop plane from the coast, where I had been living with my partner and our dog. Amid the pandemic, I touched down in a Oaxaca unlike the one that tops so many must-visit lists. The city's major sites were a patchwork of open and closed, and Hierve el Agua was one of the latter. Unlike Oaxaca’s museums, which were closed due to COVID-19, however, locals say Hierve el Agua is most likely shuttered for good.
Why Hierve el Agua closed
As Oaxaca’s star has risen over the last decade, so has the popularity of Hierve el Agua. In 2015, tourist arrivals in Oaxaca increased 20 percent over the previous year, and the number of annual visitors has stayed firmly above 1 million ever since (pandemic-era figures are still not available). According to the president Bulmaro Olivera Garcia of the land affairs committee in the San Lorenzo Albarradas municipality, where Hierve el Agua is located, the stunning site drew anywhere from 2,500 people to 7,000 people per day pre-pandemic.
The local community's decision to close Hierve el Agua has come as a direct result of those visitor numbers. Lawyers for San Lorenzo Albarradas allege that Oaxaca’s state government has failed to deliver millions of pesos, collected from the site's tourist entry fees, that were promised to its local community in an ongoing management dispute. Further, the town says that the state's control of the site prevents any sustainable, equitable land development in the area, by depriving the municipality of funds that could reforest Hierve el Agua, protect cultural patrimony, and redevelop the largely impoverished area, which is home to just 3,000 people—many of whom are indigenous Zapotec and have inhabited this region for millennia.
The dispute about who is entitled to Hierve el Agua and its bounty has gone on for about 16 years, says Eder Salinas Cortes, lawyer for the local municipality of San Lorenzo Albarradas, who also alleges the state government has “enriched" itself at the expense of the people who live in the area. In addition to demanding funds from tourist entries go to the locals, Salinas Cortes and the town are also calling for conservation efforts at the site that they say "would offer a better experience for local and foreign tourists”—in addition to preserving it. In March, a private study was launched to investigate how much water from the site has been lost to deforestation and illegal aquifer use permitted by the state, revealing that roughly 80 percent of the water that keeps Hierve el Agua stunningly beautiful has dried up.
This isn’t the first time the conflict has closed Hierve el Agua—and it's not just a state versus local battle either. A report by Oaxaca’s Secretary of Tourism describes a 2006 government-mediated solution to the decades-long conflict between San Lorenzo Albarradas and Hierve el Agua’s immediate community of Roaguía, in which the state would offer both revenue from ticket sales. But the dispute has continued. Most recently, a 2019 federal circuit court affirmed the larger municipality of San Lorenzo’s rights to Hierve el Agua—yet, shortly after, Roaguía seized the site, permanently altering portions of the natural landscape in the process.
Beyond the petrified falls themselves, the conflict has closed off the wonders of the entire nature reserve around Hierve el Agua. “There are archaeological ruins in the mountain caves," says San Lorenzo Albarradas' land-affairs president Bulmaro Olivera García. “There’s a huge diversity of plants and animals in which we could invest in bettering and amplifying ecotourism services.” For those reasons, San Lorenzo Albarradas has posed sustainable ecotourism and conservation initiatives as the key to reopening Hierve el Agua. The town demands the government invest in the community’s few thousand inhabitants, who remain largely impoverished, through those initiatives.
Where to go instead
While the fight continues, visitors to Oaxaca can still find responsible ways to experience the state’s natural beauty that do not include its petrified falls. While there are other indigenous ecotourism opportunities in Oaxaca, the majority of visitors who have Hierve el Agua on their itinerary don’t know the reasons behind its closure.
“I would say about 80 percent of our guests are not aware of the reason why Hierve el Agua is closed," says Maria Crespo, owner and innkeeper of El Diablo y la Sandia bed-and-breakfast in Oaxaca’s Centro Historico." They mention it, and they know it's closed, so they move forward and make other plans. The other 20 percent—who are mostly Mexicans—know that it is closed due to a political conflict.”
Crespo points out that the state has a wealth of other experiences to offer visitors: ancient ruins, artisan communities, and other stunning natural playgrounds, like the six-mile hiking loop La Cumbre Ixtepeji and the mountain pueblos of the Sierra Sur. Responsible ecotourism is growing elsewhere in Oaxaca; the Pueblos Mancomunados, several rural indigenous Zapotec towns tucked high in the Sierra Norte, offer community-run outdoor activities northeast of Oaxaca city, including remote zip-lines, walking tours, and biking trails. Other stunning Zapotec historical sites, like the hilltop pyramids of Monte Alban, or the intricately detailed ruins of Mitla, date back thousands of years.
Still, there is “nothing quite like Hierve el Agua,” Crespo says. “There’s a lot of natural history depicted in those magnificent petrified waters.”
And while the conflict at Hierve el Agua seems intractable, there have been signs of a thaw in the dispute. In May, Salinas Cortes and San Lorenzo Albarradas community representatives held a press conference in which they suggested that reforestation efforts, which they propose be carried out by Mexico’s National Guard and federal government, could prompt them to finally reopen Hierve el Agua. Until those matters are settled, though, they see the ongoing closure as the only responsible recourse.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler