I’d spent the last half-hour fighting nausea brought on by curvy mountain roads when my tour van finally pulled into the parking lot at Misol-Ha Waterfall. I briefly considered dropping to my knees and kissing the hot, motionless asphalt, but tour guide hurried me along, as this was only a 40-minute stop. Instead, I gulped fresh air and headed down the hill to view MisolHa Waterfall, a lovely ribbon that plunges into a circular pool at the bottom of a gorge.

Walk behind Misol Ha Waterfall and up to a wet cave on the other side of the gorge

Descending the concrete stairs I carefully picked my way over slick rounded boulders littering the path to walk under the cascade. Beyond the cataract the path climbed to a cave on the opposite ridge. Up I went, grasping naked tree branches and ducking under rocky overhangs along the unimproved trail. Anything for a good photo. Afterward, hurrying back over the treacherous wet path, I groused silently, “I hope the lighting at the next waterfall is better.”

Back in the van we wound deeper into the mountains. From hilltops scalded by sunshine we descended into dense jungle tunnels that all but blocked the sun. As I squinted and blinked, trying to adjust my eyes to the alternating light and dark, I suddenly smelled smoke. With each passing mile the scent grew stronger, until we rounded a long curve that opened out on a broad valley pocked with gray columns slowly rumbling skyward. Everywhere, the rainforest was being set aflame to clear farmland. Here and there, blackened patches littered with burned-out tree stumps and rocky outcroppings bordered the road; the land’s obvious unsuitability for cultivation broke my heart. These plots would be farmed for a few years and then abandoned when the limited nutrients in their soils had been depleted; the jungle would reclaim the land but it would never again be virginal or as diverse.

Agual Azul (Blue Water) Waterfall in Chiapas is stunningly colored by high mineral content

Far off in the distance, between the vertiginous green of untouched jungle and the horrid blackened scars I suddenly spotted a narrow swath of turquoise. Mirage-like, it appeared and disappeared in the shimmering heat rising from the valley floor as we descended from the mountaintop. My mirage was actually Agua Azul Waterfall (Blue Water in English), a cascade that creates multiple waterfalls and crystalline clear turquoise pools on its miles-long journey down the mountain. The exquisite blue color of the water is caused by calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide, which are leached from the surrounding limestone. When light travels through this mineral laden water, the entire color spectrum, with the exception of blue, is absorbed. The light bounces off the bottom of the river and reflects back as this rich shade of turquoise.

Can’t view the above slide show of Agua Azul waterfall in Chiapas, Mexico? Click here.

Agua Azul was named a Federal Protected Forest and Wildlife Refuge in 1980 and Biosphere Special Reserve some years later. Visitors are allowed to swim in the pools below the falls and camp in the surroundings. Whitewater rafters often run the upper reaches of the river and the multitude of trails that criss-cross the complex are popular with hikers, bird watchers, and photographers. From the placid pools at the bottom where families picnicked and swam, I followed an improved trail that ascended alongside the tumbling river until, near the top, I found a dirt path leading to a Mirador – a wooden deck overlooking the entire length of the falls. I stepped to the edge and surveyed the lovely green and blue valley spread out below me. Thankfully, none of the blackened remains of rainforest were visible, but I wondered how long it would be before poor campesinos burned the jungles bordering Agua Azul. I raised my camera and took shot after shot, fervently hoping that this treasure of a site would be preserved in actuality and not just in my photos.