“Excuse me, everyone. I need you to give me a few pesos so that we can continue onto the site.”

I looked out the window and eyed the small group of men in their cowboy hats, sans official insignias, standing under a makeshift tin-roofed shelter. I eyed my fellow travellers in the compact van, including the tour guide. With the vaguely sheepish expression on the guide’s face and the confusion on the group’s collective face, it was clear that we were being charged twice for this particular visit. The guide said we had to pay a certain amount extra to continue on but I claimed to only have a few pesos. Apparently that was good enough which confirmed what was really going on here. The guide ducked out of the van, paid the cowboy hats, and on we went down the winding dusty road.

One of the reasons Oaxaca remains a favorite of mine is its beautifully varied landscape. Mountains, water, scrub lands, wide open spaces…it has it all. And sometimes, you get it all in one spot, too. Hierve el Agua is one of those places. Spanish for “the water boils”, Hierve el Agua is a set of calcified rock formations set in the middle of a mountainous valley. The site got its name because the springs in the area actually do bubble. This is apparently due to underground water currents – there are a couple spots at Hierve el Agua where you can see the bubbling action.

Getting there is a mini adventure in itself due to its relative isolation. Located 70km east of Oaxaca City, you either have to rent a car or take a tour out to the site. The drive is a beautiful one if you’re a fan of semi-desert landscapes like me. Getting to Hierve el Agua was also an adventure because of the highway robbery we experienced. At the time, there was a dispute between two local communities over who should be handling the entrance fees to the site. So what they ended up doing for a while was one group would charge tourists who got to the road leading to the site and then the same set of tourists would be charged at the site’s actual entrance.

Hierve el Agua is basically white-ish rock formations that look like frozen waterfalls. It was created by water containing an overabundance of minerals such as calcium. As the water flowed over the cliffs, minerals were deposited; over time, the deposits grew into what is seen today. One of the formations is about 12m long and the other is about 30m long. The larger one especially is impressive, a white waterfall just there in the middle of a mountainous valley.

At the top of the smaller formation, there are a few pools in which one can swim. The water is deliciously warm (22C-27C) and has a smooth feel due to the high mineral content. The colour of the water varies from deep blues to turquoise greens. As usual for a site like this, the water is claimed to have healing properties and is supposed to be great for your skin. I didn’t swim but that’s because I spent all my time wandering around the place taking photographs. The pools and surrounding area were gorgeous and were definitely photogenic.

If you’re in Oaxaca, I suggest a visit to Heirve el Agua. It is a cool place that is rather unique and it will definitely make your camera trigger finger itch. It is definitely off-the-beaten path in terms of tourist sites and there aren’t too many of these kinds of places in the world (the only other one I’ve seen so far is in Turkey) as far as I know – so go check it out!

Have you ever had to pay a little extra in order to see a tourist site? Highway robbery or people just trying to make a living, in your mind?