You’ve heard about Paul Bunyan, and probably the Chupacabra, and the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. Cultures make up stories that become legends, in order to entertain, amuse, teach lessons, and to say something about the people who pass them on. They are told and retold countless times until they help define a culture’s personality and history. But by and large, they’re fictional. Nobody expects to see the Headless Horseman or the Big Rock Candy Mountain. The same could be said for some of the great legends that came from South America. The Aztecs told the Spanish conquistadors that there was a city of gold in the Amazon, probably to get them to leave town after all the thievery and violence they had visited upon the hapless native population. It was pure hooey, but the conquistadors bought it, and paid dearly for wandering off into that very challenging environment in search of endless wealth.
Another equally preposterous tale the Aztecs spoke of was about a boiling river. Sounds like something that might border the kingdom of hell, but nobody took it too seriously. A geothermal scientist named Andrés Ruzo had heard the story, but like all other researchers before him, dismissed the idea as another tall tale. Now naturally hot water is nothing out of the ordinary: Yellowstone, Rotorua and Iceland are famous for their hot springs, mud pots, and geysers. But these and all the other sites of high geothermal activity occur in fairly close proximity to volcanic systems. Magmatic, or juvenile, waters—so called because they are part of the volatile fluids in a magma body—rise through fissures to the surface, arriving at very high temperature. So why couldn’t there be a hot water feature in the Amazon? As it turns out, that vast, richly forested basin has no vulcanism to power such a natural hotspot.
It then came as quite a surprise to Ruzo that some of his very own relatives, former residents of the Amazon basin, were not only familiar with the story of the boiling river, but had indeed seen and even swum in its waters! In 2010, despite his skepticism, their insistence led him to make the arduous journey to their former homelands in the central Peruvian Amazon to see for himself. He was not disappointed. Upon reaching the locale, he witnessed a permanent cloud of steaming air hanging over a river. A river that had temperatures of 86 degrees Celsius, only 14 degrees short of the 100 degree boiling point. In Fahrenheit, the two figures would be 187 degree river water, just below 212 for boiling. And Ruzo obtained one reading of 210 degrees! All things considered, that’s close enough to label it the Boiling River. Had this been a small creek, it still would have been remarkable given its location over 430 miles from any significant volcanic activity. But this was a true river—as much as 20 feet deep, and over 80 feet wide in places—and it flowed at very high temperatures for almost four miles.
The river is called Shanay-timpishka by the locals, and it is no fairy tale to them. They use its hot water for cooking, cleaning, to make tea, and as described by Ruzo’s aunt, to swim in when it rains hard enough to cool the steamy water down to comfortable levels. Unlike most geothermally heated water, it is not highly sulfurous, and actually tastes good. But even though it’s a fact of life for them, and quite useful, they don’t have a clue as to its heat source. The name they have given it means “boiled with the heat of the sun,” but that’s not a likely explanation. Ruzo himself, even as a geothermal scientist, was baffled. He did extensive studies of the water chemistry and heat variance along the river course. He found that the water has a rainfall origin, and that the river starts out as a cold stream at its source. The mystery is not solved, but theories have developed that the internal conduits of the Earth may be much more extensive than previously thought. The rain may have fallen as far away as the distant Andes Mountains, and then percolated down deep into the Earth. The ambient heat of the Earth increases with depth—the geothermal gradient—and once heated sufficiently, the water rises by way of cracks, faults, and conduits in the ground to emerge as the heat source for a very hot river in the Amazon. Such a process would require long “pipes” and rapid transport to retain the heat. It is unlike anything else in the world, and the plumbing and physics required of the system would seem infeasible. But there it is.
Its origins aside, Ruzo and others have also been studying the microbes that have evolved to actually survive the piping-hot waters. Some of these hardy creatures are entirely new to science. Sadly, Ruzo has also seen local animals fall into the hot river and then be slowly cooked alive. It’s certainly not a place to be trifled with. Despite its powerful heat, though, the region is vulnerable to outside forces and short-sighted locals as well. Many would be happy to cut down the surrounding forests and graze livestock on the resulting shrub or grassland. But for Andrés Ruzo, the astounding uniqueness of this natural system of geothermal activity, its co-evolved biology, and its scenic setting are qualities worth saving. His mission in life is to secure the area with governmental protections so that it can continue to be studied and enjoyed for the natural wonder that it is. To spread the word, he has written a book about his “discovery” and its value to the world. The Boiling River of the Amazon tells his story, and will perhaps ensure Shanay-timpishka’s survival as an undisturbed treasure.
Has the Shanay-timpishka got you all hot to visit Peru? If the Boiling River is too remote, how about Machu Picchu or the Nazca Lines? Prepare yourself for the journey with the Peru Lonely Planet Guide, available from Maps.com by clicking here:
caption: The volcanic regions closest to the Boiling River are too far away to stoke the heat of the river.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Chiton magnificus (Public domain)
caption: There is a Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park too, but it is small and short, and quickly joins the Gardner River, where its temperatures become comfortable to bathers.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Jo Suderman (Public domain)
caption: Yellowstone soakers enjoying the waters.
source: Flickr: Wesley Fryer (CC by 2.0)