The River that Can Cook Creatures Alive: Peru’s Mysterious Boiling River

Boiling River “Shanay-Timpishka” | February 4, 2018 | Courtesy of “Made in Perú”.

Winner of the Fall 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Latin American History”

In the city of Lima, it is traditional for grandparents to tell stories to their grandsons at family dinner gatherings. One grandson, who heard a story handed down through many generations, is named Andrés Ruzo. When he was little, his grandparents told him stories about the Spanish and their conquest of Peru. One of those stories told that after the Incas had been conquered by the Spanish, the conquerors had grown rich and powerful, because of the huge amounts of gold they had taken from the Incas. But some of those men just wanted more, so they went into towns asking the Incas, “Where can we get more gold?” With their land usurped and their people slaughtered, the Inca wanted vengeance. They told the greedy conquistadors to go to the Amazon and search for a city made out of gold that they called Paititi (“El Dorado” in Spanish and “The Golden One” in English).1 The Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world, has an area of seven million square kilometers and goes through five Latin-American countries, but mostly through Brazil and Peru.2

The Execution of the Inca | Spaniards burning the Inca Ruler Atahualpa | Made in 1533 , Uploaded on March 20, 2005 | Courtesy of Wikicommons

The likelihood of someone having built a city of gold in this treacherous area was slim, but the avarice of the Spaniards was too great. The few men that ultimately returned from the Amazon told stories of shamans, warriors that used arrows, man-eating beasts, and the most scientifically curious aspect of this story: a river that boiled and emitted gusts of vapor.3

Twelve years later, Andrés Ruzo had become a geoscientist at the Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. While he was working on his Ph.D. at SMU, and trying to understand Peru’s geothermal energy potential–the thermal energy stored in the earth–he remembered the stories his grandfather had told him. He thought about them many times, but the best science of the time suggested that the existence of a boiling river in the largest tropical forest in the world, which was also far from a powerful heat source, was inconceivable. He wanted to confirm his suspicions for himself, so he asked professors, students, oil, gas, and mining companies about it, but they all seemed to agree that the existence of a boiling river in a zone where there are no volcanoes is impossible.4

Ruzo returned to Peru in 2011 to see his family. At a family dinner, his aunt told him that the river was real and that she had swam there. While arguing with his aunt about it, his uncle got into the conversation, agreed with her, and added that there was a shaman protecting the river. Motivated by the curiosity, Ruzo made a choice. He decided to go into the vast region of the Amazon and see for himself whether that part of the story was true or not. Because if it was true, it could become a discovery of the highest order.5

Finally, after more than two hours and forty-five minutes of travel, he was in the Amazon. Almost seven hundred kilometers away from the nearest volcanic center, he started hiking, and as he went deeper into the region, he started noticing some vapor coming from some of the trees. He went deeper until he stopped, stunned by what was in front of him; he ran into what seemed to be a shaman almost fully surrounded by vapor. He took his thermometer and the average temperature of the river was 86 degrees Celsius. After talking with this man for a while, he discovers that the man was the shaman’s apprentice. He was told that the shaman was in charge of protecting the river and that the place where he was standing was the land of the “Yacumama,” a giant snake spirit that was the mother of waters. It was a snake who creates hot and cold streams. Surprisingly, the point where the hot and cold streams mix is underneath one big rock formation that has the shape of a snake’s head, covered with moss and surrounded by vegetation.6

Photograph of the Peruvian Amazon | April 11, 1993| Courtesy of Flickr.

In describing the fulfilling experience of discovering the boiling river, Ruzo states: “This is becoming one of the greatest adventures of my life. This will be the story I tell my children and grandchildren—and every action I make at this moment adds a new piece of the story. Every passing second now seems to hold a greater significance. Burning-hot water splashes on my right arm. I sit up, pulling my arm to my chest, no longer lost in thought. I recall my professor’s words from volcanology field school: ‘the people who die on volcanoes are the inexperienced who are also ignorant of the dangers and the experts who have forgotten they are dangerous.’ I stand, make sure I have a firm footing and jump back onto the nearest shore. As I look back at the boiling river I can’t suppress an excited whisper: this place exists. This place actually exists. I remember the shaman saying the river has called me here for a purpose, and I can feel a greater mission about to take place.”7

The river started as a cold stream and continued hotter underneath the Yacumama. So the legend was pretty accurate. The data showed that the river was independent of any volcanic source. Ruzo asked how that could be possible? He asked many geothermal experts and volcanologists for years, but he still hasn’t been able to explain the reason for the temperatures, nor find another phenomenon like this. Shanay-Timpishka flows hot for 6.24 kilometers, it gets up to 25 meters wide and its temperature ranges from 25 to more than 90 degrees Celsius depending on what part of the river you are measuring. The river’s hottest temperature is almost twice as hot as a hot cup of coffee. The boiling river is an amazing and unique phenomenon, but it is also very dangerous. At 47 degrees Celsius, any creature that dares to get inside the water meets his last moments. Ruzo explained that he saw a toad fall into the waters and his body started cooking. Every minute inside that it spent struggling to get out, it got more tired until water entered his mouth and started cooking the toad from the inside. At the hottest section of the river, small animals are cooked in a matter of seconds.8

Photograph of the Amazon River | March 5, 2007 | Courtesy of Flickr.

The boiling river is a beautiful and dangerous site, and it is a mystery for geoscientists to explain. We are still waiting for it to be solved. It is the largest boiling river in existence that we know of, but for the surrounding community, it is a natural resource. People cook and drink from the river; its water is clean and somewhat tasty. The river is considered so precious that Ruzo needed to talk to the shaman and receive his approval to study the river, with the condition of returning the water. The river is located in an exploitable jungle, and there are no specific laws that protect it. After the shaman said he saw no evil intentions within the young scientist, Ruzo was ready for some information gathering. He first needed to get a full image of the river, so he contacted Google Earth to get one by satellite. He later found its name: Shanay-Timpishka, which means “Boiled with the Heat of the Sun.” He was aided by National Geographic grants and started his own geophysical and geothermal studies on the river in 2011.9

After discovering one of the largest thermal rivers in the world, Ruzo published his findings, and he is now credited for making more widely known the existence of this phenomenon. With the help from his colleagues from National Geographic, Dr. Spencer Wells, and from UC Davis, Dr. Jon Eisen, he discovered new lifeforms, new species living inside the river. Apart from that, he also gathered some data indicating the presence of a large hydrothermal system (the deeper into the earth, the hotter), but he still needs more research in order to discover the exact reason for its temperatures. Since the discovery is recent, there’s not much information about the new species.10

Model of a Hydrothermal system| September 24, 2009 | Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Ruzo now understands that the shaman and the people living there kept the river a secret because it is just another piece of unprotected land waiting to be exploited by the illegal loggers and the government. Additionally, one of Ruzo’s main points for the protection of the river is its “significance,” which can be summarized in two aspects. The first is its cultural significance. It is part of Peru’s natural history and according to the shaman, it is a center of shamanic learning and a source of knowledge. The second is its geological significance. The river is huge and it is different from any other boiling river. Depending on the results, this could become a great contribution to geoscience.11

After five years of research, Ruzo has set the goal of ensuring that whoever controls the river is going to respect it and understand its “importance and uniqueness.” He is now spreading the message of “significance” in his book The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon, and in boilingriver.org, which is a nonprofit organization created in 2016 that seeks to protect the river, spread the message of its significance, and provide information gathered by his research. Andrés Ruzo is an example of how useful it is to remember the stories of one’s heritage; these tales may not be concrete knowledge or facts, but they can certainly lead to amazing discoveries that may not have been found any other way.12

  1. Andres Ruzo, “How I Found a Mythical Boiling River in the Amazon” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 6-12.
  2. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Amazon River”.
  3. Andres Ruzo, “The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in The Amazon,” YouTube video, 15:49, posted by TED, February 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4N2SxUZwiU&t=604s.
  4. Andres Ruzo, How I Found a Mythical Boiling River in the Amazon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 13-17.
  5. Andres Ruzo, “The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in The Amazon”, YouTube video, 15:49, posted by TED, February 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4N2SxUZwiU&t=604s.
  6. Andres Ruzo, How I Found a Mythical Boiling River in the Amazon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 76-86.
  7. Andrés Ruzo, How I Found a Mythical Boiling River in the Amazon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 1-2.
  8. Andres Ruzo, “The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in The Amazon”, YouTube video, 15:49, posted by TED, February 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4N2SxUZwiU&t=604s.
  9. Simon Worrall, “This River Kills Everything that Falls into it. Legend or fact? A young explorer that traveled deep into a remote jungle to find out,” National Geographic, March 13, 2016. Accessed September 9, 2018, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160313-boiling-river-amazon-geothermal-science-conservation-ngbooktalk.
  10. Andrés Ruzo, “The Boiling River Project,” Lumen Foundation, 2016, Accessed September 9, 2018, http://www.boilingriver.org.
  11. Kelley McMillan, “A Boiling River Flows Through the Amazon. Can it be Saved?”, National Geographic, February 18, 2016. Accessed September 8, 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/adventure-blog/2016/02/18/this-mythical-river-in-peru-is-boiling-and-one-young-scientist-is-on-a-quest-to-protect-it/.
  12. Andres Ruzo. “The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in The Amazon,” YouTube video, 15:49, posted by TED, February 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4N2SxUZwiU&t=604s.
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88 Comments

  • I loved many of the points that you made within the article that grabbed the reader’s attention and made them keep reading. It also including very captivating information, and I found the reasoning behind the river and why it was kept a secret from loggers and the government very interesting. Overall, it was a very well written article that informed me about something I did not know much about.

  • I loved the way this article was written. It opened up in a way that created a sense of wonder and as it went on it felt like the reader was discovering the secrets of this river alongside Ruzo and it felt like an adventure rather than just reading. I really enjoyed the subject matter cause it helps remind the reader that there is still so much in this world that we don’t know about. It helps to keep alive that sense of discovery that has lead humanity to its greatest peaks.

  • Congratulations on being nominated for your article! Before reading this article, I knew very little over this subject, so this article was very informative. Overall the writing was well done, and this author was able to engage the reader to continue reading on, as well as, informing the reader of important significant details over Peru’s Mysterious Boiling River. Great work!

  • Congratulations on your nomination. The author begins his introduction with a suspenseful opening which keeps the readers interested in the article. I really enjoyed reading this article because it amazes me the different civilizations that existed back then. The Peruvians looked at this boiling river as part of who they were and treasured it even though it remains a mystery. Great read! (reposted)

  • This was a really interesting read. Prior to reading your article, I had never once heard about this river, but you article has definitely motivated me to read more about it and more about the researcher who spent years trying to understand it and explain its significance to the rest of the world. Congratulations on your nomination for an award and great job in writing such and informative and fascinating article.

  • Congratulations on your nomination. The author begins his introduction with a suspenseful opening which keeps the readers interested in the article. I really enjoyed reading this article because it amazes me the different civilizations that existed back then. The Peruvians looked at this boiling river as part of who they were and treasured it even though it remains a mystery. Great read!

  • I have always found it fascinating how civilizations use to explain things such as the causes of the natural disaster, the purpose of stars, or the reason that the sun came up in the rotation that it did. So many civilizations had so many different explanations as to how these things could be. We see that even here the natural phenomenon could not even be explained scientifically. Ruzo notes the story passed down to him, respects it, and continues to investigate the situation. I find this admirable.

  • The beginning of this article is very suspenseful! It was a joy to read. I kept scrolling with hopes of finding the answer to why the river was so hot and I never reached it. You had my attention the whole way through. I appreciate that Ruzo respect the beliefs of the people in that region. I wish more people understood the meaning of the word sacred.

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