Santiago Apoala is a hidden gem just a few hours away from Oaxaca City, Mexico. The small Mixteca village is home to some of Mexico’s most beautiful turquoise waterfalls and several stunning hiking routes. A picture is worth a thousand words, so browse the photos in this article to get a sense of why this small village is so incredible.
Once your attention is caught by the town’s icy blue swimming holes, brilliant waterfalls, and rugged farmland, you’ll need some help planning your visit. Although the small town attracts visitors from nearby Oaxacan towns, it’s still an under-the-radar destination for international (and English-speaking) travelers.
While living in Oaxaca City, I visited this stunning town and explored many of the area’s natural wonders. I compiled this Santiago Apoala travel guide to help you plan your trip. Read on for essential travel tips, directions from Oaxaca City, tour recommendations, the best time to visit, hiking routes, and so much more.
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Santiago Apoala, Oaxaca Travel Guide
Santiago Apoala is also sometimes called simply ‘Apoala.’ The word Apoala means “breaking water,” referring to the gorgeous waterfalls surrounding the small town. The village has around 200 inhabitants and frequently hosts visitors from nearby areas in Mexico. While the town is only two hours away from Oaxaca City, a popular (and highly recommended) destination for international travelers, few make the trek to this stunning small town. Those who journey out of the city find tranquility in Santiago Apoala’s nature.
Santiago Apoala’s most famous waterfall peeking through vibrant tropical vegetation
Why Visit Santiago Apoala?
If the photos don’t intrigue you enough, here are a few reasons why Santiago Apoala is worth a visit:
★ Hike through diverse terrain—rugged farmland, lush river banks, rocky canyons, and stunning viewpoints
★ Swim in turquoise blue swimming holes
★ Visit a small Mixteca village where the local language and culture are rooted in prehispanic times
★ See what life is like in rural Oaxaca
★ Gaze up at stunning waterfalls
★ Escape from the crowds of Oaxaca City into pristine nature
★ Camp under the stars
Santiago Apoala from above
Where is Santiago Apoala?
Santiago Apoala is located Mixtec region of Oaxaca, Mexico. The small village is just over two hours from Oaxaca de Juárez, four hours from Puebla, and six hours from Mexico City.
How to get to Santiago Apoala
Oaxaca City to Santiago Apoala
By car: The best way to get to Santiago Apoala is by car. You can easily rent a car in Oaxaca City and then drive just over two hours to Santiago Apoala (follow directions on Google Maps). Except for about a hundred yards of dirt roads in one of the villages on the way to Apoala, the entire drive to Santiago Apoala is paved. Parts of the road are newly paved within the past year or so, and there are very few potholes.
By tour: The easiest way to travel to Santiago Apoala is on a tour. Keep reading for my tour recommendations!
By bus: There is no direct bus from Oaxaca City to Santiago Apoala. However, if you are highly motivated and are on a budget, you can take a bus from Oaxaca to Nochixtlán and hire a taxi to bring you the final distance (1 hour) to Apoala Oaxaca.
Swimming below a waterfall in Apoala
A waterfall viewpoint from Apoala’s farmland
Essential Mexico Travel Resources
Have a Mexico trip coming up soon? There are a lot of travel companies out there, but some are better than others. After traveling to dozens of countries and living abroad on several continents, here are some of my favorite websites and resources for planning unforgettable trips.
Essential Santiago Apoala Travel Tips
Santiago Apoala is a small indigenous village with very few (if any) English speakers and poor internet. Plan ahead and read each of these travel tips before setting off on your Oaxacan adventure.
You Must Visit the Town’s Ecotourism Office + Pay a Fee
Before exploring the town or hiking, you must stop by the town’s eco-tourism office (Oficinas del Centro Ecoturístico Apoala Yutsa Too) to pay a small fee (~$50 pesos) and register. The office is open from 7am-7pm daily. If you have any questions about the town or hiking routes, the staff will gladly help. They can also connect you with a certified local hiking guide or a campsite.
The ecotourism office is easy to find via Google Maps. Getting lost in such a small town is difficult, but if you need help finding the office, ask any local for directions.
A trail along the edge of local farmland — difficult to follow without a local guide
Respect the Local Mixtec Community + Consider Hiring a Local Guide
Santiago Apoala is a small, tight-knit community of around 200 people. When visiting the town as a tourist, it’s essential to recognize its stunning natural landmarks that attract visitors are also life sources for the local community. The spring-fed river is the community’s primary water source, and many hiking routes go through community farmlands.
While the route to the main waterfall is obvious, other hiking trails traverse through farmland and are not marked. Further, swimming in certain parts of the river is prohibited, and the best way to know where you can or cannot hike/swim is to go with a guide. I highly recommend hiring a local guide, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Hiring a guide not only makes it easier for you but also supports the local community.
Breathtaking views from above the village
Best Times to Visit Santiago Apoala
Oaxaca has two distinct seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. The dry season typically runs between October and April, and the rainy season runs between May and October. You can enjoy a visit to Santiago Apoala in either season, but it’s important to know what to expect.
Dry season (October-April)
The dry season is arguably the best time to visit for swimming and hiking. The river is turquoise blue, and the swimming pools are clear, calm, and clean. Lush green trees grow along the river’s edge, but the rest of the town resembles a rugged, dry desert.
Santiago Apoala Waterfall in the dry season
Waterfall and greenery in the dry season
Rainy season (May-October)
The weather is a little less predictable in the rainy season, making it challenging to enjoy Apoala’s stunning waterfalls, peaceful river, and tranquil swimming holes. If hit by heavy rain, the river will overflow and shift rapidly from a clear, calm flow to a powerful, brown flow full of sediment. Swimming can be unsafe or unpleasant. However, if you visit in during the rainy season, the valley will be lush green.
Tip: Download Google Maps and Google Translate
Since the internet is unreliable in Santiago Apoala, I highly recommend downloading the area on Google Maps (learn how here) and downloading Spanish/English Google Translate if you don’t speak Spanish (learn how here).
Tip: Bring Cash
There are no ATMs in Santiago Apoala, and few places (if any) take card. Make sure to bring enough pesos for your entire visit.
Hiking along farmland in beautiful Santiago Apoala Oaxaca
Things to do in Santiago Apoala | Santiago Apoala Hiking Routes
Santiago Apoala is home to some of the best hiking in Oaxaca and the state’s most iconic waterfalls (only after the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua). You can visit several of the places on this list within a single day, and still have time to relax by the water or bathe in the cool freshwater pools.
1. Hike to Cola de Serpiente (Cascadas Apoala)
Cola de Serpiente (also called Santiago Apoala waterfall) is the town’s main attraction. You can easily reach the turquoise blue pools below the waterfall via a steep but well-maintained trail from the village. The trail from the center of town to the waterfall is about half a mile.
Cola de Serpiente from above
Santiago Apoala waterfall Oaxaca
The photos above were taken in the dry season. In the rainy season (May-October), the water’s color changes to brown and it can be dangerous to swim.
2. Walk Along the River
Walking along the river within the town is easily the most underrated thing to do in Santiago Apoala. The calm, gentle stream meanders around large Montezuma Cypress trees (the same type of tree as the famous El Tule in Oaxaca City). Walking beside the river’s crystal-clear water makes it easy to forget you’re in the middle of dry, dusty Oaxaca.
The tranquil river that runs through the village
I recommend walking along the river from Cabanas de Santiago Apaola toward the cliff at the edge of town, where the trail to the stunning Cola de Serpiente waterfall (mentioned above) starts.
3. Swim in Secluded Waterfall Pools
Beyond the most popular swimming hole (below the main waterfall), there are dozens of other hidden swimming holes along the town’s main river. While you can try to find hidden swimming spots alone, I highly recommend taking a guided tour from Oaxaca or hiring a local guide. Swimming is allowed in some places and not in others, and it can be unclear where you can swim unless you have a local with you.
A beautiful hidden swimming hole in Apoala Oaxaca
One of dozens of Santiago Apoala waterfalls
Just be warned: the water is ICE COLD! It’s certainly refreshing on a hot Oaxacan day, but still shocking to the body when you jump in!
4. Hike Through the Twin Rocks
You’ll encounter the Twin Rocks (Peña Gemelas) just a few minutes southwest of town. You can hike through these two large boulders and follow the river upstream for several miles.
The Twin Rocks of Santiago Apoala
This area of Santiago Apoala comes alive in the rainy season, with the rocks covered in lush green foliage. In the dry season, it’s still beautiful but a little less vibrant.
5. Hike the Mirador Trail to a Viewpoint
Another one of the best things to do in Apoala is to overlook the village from El Mirador, a viewpoint on the cliffs northwest of town. You can hike up the Mirador Trail or drive the viewpoint on your way to (or from) the village.
A stunning viewpoint at El Mirador overlooking Santiago Apoala Oaxaca
Whether you hike or not, I highly recommend checking out this stunning viewpoint during your visit. If you want to skip the hike and drive to the viewpoint, be aware that there are no road signs. Simply turn off of the road at this pin on Google Maps and drive a few moments until you reach a large cross overlooking the cliff.
Santiago Apoala Tours
Despite being an under-the-radar destination for international tourists, a few tour companies offer Santiago Apoala hiking trips from Oaxaca City. After living in Oaxaca as a digital nomad, I got to know some of the local tour companies and can recommend the following:
- Coyote Aventuras: Ecotourism company with excellent guides, all inclusive outdoor adventures (plenty of healthy food, snacks, and drinks included), and a wonderful day trip to Santiago Apoala.
- Tierraventuras: Ecotourism company with a two-day trip to Santiago Apoala.
- Viator Santiago Apoala tour: This tour is a more affordable alternative to the other tours above.
Camping beside the cliffs and river on the edge of town
Where to Stay in Santiago Apoala
There are only a few places to stay in Santiago Apoala, and most don’t have websites. The best places to stay include:
- La Casa de Mi Abuelita: A simple, highly-rated bed and breakfast in the heart of Santiago Apoala. Contact them on their Apoala Experience Facebook page for more info.
- Cabañas De Santiago Apoala (photo below): Several well-maintained cabins on the edge of town. Most of the cabins cost about $300 pesos per night. The ecotourism office runs the cabins, so you can contact the town’s eco-tourism office (+52 56 1504 2660) for more info.
- Camping: You can camp in several places around Santiago Apoala with your own camping supplies. However, you must ask for permission and pay a small camping fee at the town’s ecotourism office.
Cabañas De Santiago Apoala, one of the best places to stay
Santiago Apoala Restaurants
Santiago Apoala only has a handful of restaurants, and none of them show up online. They all serve simple yet delicious local cuisine, and thankfully, they are all vegan-friendly! During my visit to Santiago Apoala, the local restaurants served me memelas (like a tostada but not crunchy) with beans and nopales (cactus) and fresh salsa, a lentil soup, delicious herbed potatoes, fresh tortillas, local avocados, and Mexican rice. You can find one restaurant near the Cabañas De Santiago Apoala and two others in the town.
A darling donkey along near the riverbank
Tours from Oaxaca City vs. Getting to Santiago Apoala on Your Own
You can either book a Santiago Apoala tour from Oaxaca City or get to Santiago Apoala on your own. As I mentioned above, I recommend hiring a guide either way, but if you book a tour from Oaxaca City, the guide will be included in the price.
If you decide to visit Santiago Apoala on a tour, I highly recommend booking with Coyote Aventuras, an Oaxaca City-based ecotourism company. They have a deep relationship with the local Mixtec community in Apoala, and their guides are extremely knowledgeable about the region’s history and wildlife.
I’ve been on dozens of tours in Mexico, and my tour with Coyote Aventuras was one of the best. My husband and I booked a trip to Apoala with them and ended up with a private tour (for the price of a regular tour). And as vegans, we were very impressed—our guide was a vegetarian, so he completely understood our dietary needs and provided us with two amazing vegan meals and tons of plant-based snacks. It was so nice to be fully taken care of and not need to pack our own lunch/snacks ahead of time!
Santiago Apoala Day Trip vs Weekend Trip
Santiago Apoala is a place you can enjoy for several days without getting bored. However, it’s also a great day trip from Oaxaca City or a quick stop on an Oaxaca road trip. You can visit the main waterfall (Cola de Serpiente) via a short hike from the heart of the city and visit several other stunning yet secluded swimming holes and waterfalls within a mile or two of the town.
If you can stay for a few days, you can hike more and get to know the local community or relax beside the tranquil river.
The peaceful river in the dry season
Santiago Apoala Packing List
Bug Spray + Organic Bug Salve
My husband and I forgot bug spray during our visit to Santiago Apoala and returned to Oaxaca City with dozens of red bumps that itched for days (and got worse with time!)
Be sure to pack bug spray and an after-bug salve. While you can find bug spray and after-bug ointments in Mexico, finding DEET-free and natural products is difficult. I recommend ordering a bug spray (my rec: travel size natural bug spray) and itch relief cream (my rec: travel size organic itch relief stick) before traveling to Mexico.
Biodegradable Sunscreen + Sun Protectant Clothing
The Oaxacan sun is powerful. Although many hikes around Santiago Apoala are shaded, several trails still require walking in the direct sun. Be sure to bring biodegradable sunscreen and sun protectant clothing.
SwimSuit + Travel Towel
If you plan on jumping in the beautiful Rio de Santiago Apoala (river), make sure you pack a swimsuit and towel. I am a big fan of Nomadix travel towels for hiking and travel.
Small First Aid Kit
It’s always a good idea to bring a first aid kit on a hike, especially when hiking somewhere new and unfamiliar.
Camera / GoPro
Water + Snacks
Bring plenty of fuel (healthy snacks and water) on your Santiago Apoala hikes. It can be difficult to find healthy snacks in Mexico (even in large cities), so I always bring some Larabars and other familiar snacks with me from the U.S. whenever I visit Mexico.
A secluded waterfall just a few miles outside of town
Final Thoughts: Santiago Apoala
I truly can’t recommend Santiago Apoala enough. The village’s stunning waterfalls, tranquil farmland, beautiful swimming holes, and local charm make it the perfect weekend escape from Oaxaca City. If you visit Santiago Apoala, leave a comment and let me know what you think of this special village.
Also, check out my other Oaxaca travel guides as you plan your trip around this beautiful part of Mexico.