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October 2, 2018

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

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, 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,
  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,
  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,
  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,
  10. Andrés Ruzo, “The Boiling River Project,” Lumen Foundation, 2016, Accessed September 9, 2018,
  11. Kelley McMillan, “A Boiling River Flows Through the Amazon. Can it be Saved?”, National Geographic, February 18, 2016. Accessed September 8, 2018,
  12. Andres Ruzo. “The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in The Amazon,” YouTube video, 15:49, posted by TED, February 23, 2016,

Sebastian Carnero

Author Portfolio Page

Recent Comments


  • Mauricio Rebaza Figueroa

    Very good article! It is so interesting learning about more cultures that come from my own country, Peru. I didn’t really know a lot about this topic before reading your article, reason why I thank you for talking about it. The sources you used were really good and strong to help with the trust-worthiness of your article. You also used used really good images that helped me while reading. Overall, you did a really good job.

  • Francisco Cruzado

    I had so much fun reading about the experience of Ruzo! I am from Peru, but it is certainly the first time I ever heard about the Boiling River: it just makes me glad that I was raised in such a wonderful and diverse place. Cultural heritage is certainly something that has to be protected in Peru: I wished such natural beauties as the Boiling River were more promoted for the general public. I liked the use of the pictures: they explained very well explained the findings of Ruzo on how the water suddenly turns boiling

  • Ashley Martinez

    This was a very well written article on an extremely neat topic. I had never ever heard of Peru’s boiling river, it is actually extremely fascinating. I now understand why this mysterious river has been kept a secret for all this time. The boiling river here in Peru is such a unique area that it is best that it has been kept a secret so that no parties can destroy this special piece of land. This was a well written article.

  • Bruno Lezama

    I’m from Peru, and I have to admit that this is the first time that I read about boiling water in our Amazon. It is unbelievable how there is boild water in the Amazon despite the fact that there are not any volcano around it. I like the fact that there is a Shaman who takes care of the river because there is not a law that protects it. I believe that this is a problem in Peru, we have a lot of natural resources; however, these natural resources sometimes are used by some illegal projects because of the lacking of laws that protect them.

  • Andrea Degollado

    This article is truly fascinating. I had hear rumors of rivers being so hot that they’d boil your skin but i had never heard rumors of a river being so hot that it could cook animals alive. I think its amazing to learn the how much people cared about this river and tried to preserve it. This article is very well written and very informative.

  • Amelia Hew

    I’ve never actually heard about a boiling river hot enough to cook an animal alive without any volcanos nearby. I admire the fact that Ruzo reveal the river to show the world this incredible phenomenon and not to exploite it as a way of satisfying our greed. I love the story behind this river and how the shaman protected the river for many generations. It must be amazing to find out that the myth your parents or grandparents tells you turns out to be true and being the first to find it, like what happened in Ruzo’s case.

  • Jose Chaman

    This is a very interesting article! I am from Peru, and I had never heard of this mysterious boiling river, but thanks to this article I have been able to learn a little more about my mega-diverse country. It is very important that these geological wonders be preserved as a place, because that area is a very important area for the indigenous culture of Peru, so the Ruzo initiative seems excellent.

  • D'Hannah Duran

    I never knew the boiling river actually existed, my grandpa would tell stories about it and I thought he was just making it up. This article was very interesting when i came to the explanation of the hydro thermal system (the inserted image) I was able to understand as to why the river boiled. I think that it is amazing that Ruzo is trying to preserve the river, it is something that should stay around for years for future generations to experience.

  • Gabriel Lopez

    I’m actually surprised that it turned out that the river actually exists because I know most of the family stories that I heard aren’t actually true. I find it even more surprising is the fact that Ruzo had so much curiosity to actually see if the river exists and if theres a real shaman that guards it. I can’t imagine his reaction to when he found out that everything was true.

  • Aaron Peters

    Although I’ve heard of exploding lakes before, I haven’t heard of a boiling river before, I was surprised how the secrets behind the river remained a mystery only until recently. Hopefully the locals will be able to maintain control of the area and preserve it from the encroachment of logging, and others who wish to exploit the regions untapped resources.

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