The Wild Tale Of One Adventurous Scientist And His Fight To Save Peru’s Mythical Boiling River

The reasons to travel are as varied as the terrain that covers this great blue rock of ours. Some of us seek a slow-paced respite spent on sun-soaked beaches. Others long to trod the well-worn tracks of our ancestral backpackers, over the hills and far away. But only a brave few dare to search for the impossible, seeking out rare legends and chasing everlasting glory.

Andrés Ruzo used to hear old stories about his Peruvian ancestors sending gold-hungry conquistadors deep into Amazonia, in search of untold riches. Those who returned to civilization brought back tales of gargantuan snakes, tiny people living in the trees, and rivers that boiled men alive. At first, these ramblings were dismissed as myths, but as science and discovery marched on we learned that massive anacondas do exist. Pygmies do too.

Alas, the “river that boiled” remained elusive. This, it seemed, was nothing more than a story. Until one day when Ruzo’s aunt insisted she had seen the river with her own two eyes and could lead her nephew deep into the jungle to find it. Together, they set out on an adventure. What they found at the end of a trail was a geothermal river that boils for nearly four miles of its run — at temperatures reaching 200F.

In those scorching waters, Ruzo discovered his calling. He’s spent the last six years dutifully studying the river and the source of its magic, with the blessing of the shamans who watch over it. Last week, we sat down with Ruzo to talk about his scientific discoveries and how a call to adventure lead him to create The Boiling River Project.

Let’s start with where you are now.

I started off with the intention of going to Peru to identify Peru’s geothermal energy resources with the hopes of ideally setting up the first green energy geothermal power plant, but I found this amazing spot and I’m doing everything opposite. I’m trying to make sure that geothermal energy is not developed here at the Boiling River specifically. We thought it very necessary to hold back on as much of the scientific work as possible until the conservation effort was in a stronger place.

What’s the biggest challenge to protecting the boiling river?

Our mission is ultimately to take care of the legal side, or at least provide the scientific information and serve as sort of a portal for anyone interested in going to the Boiling River. As a nonprofit, we cannot endorse any groups specifically if you want to go for tourism, but we do give the two options for tourists if they want to go to the Boiling River and experience it. The only thing that we officially endorse is responsible tourism, especially in the developing world. This part of Peru that has very high poverty rates.

There’s a Pandora’s Box aspect to it, that’s for sure.

It would have been so much easier for me personally to simply have done the science and then moved on to the next project. The reality is that there’s a moral responsibility to science. Like you said, it’s a Pandora’s Box, and if you just open it up, so many things can go wrong. And there’s no right answer, which makes it all the more difficult, but trying to get the best solution possible together is absolutely what I’ve been doing with my team — in the United States, Peru, and abroad.

If you buy the TED book, my proceeds from the book go entirely to supporting the science and the conservation efforts, so it’s been an essential funding tool. And we’re still underfunded.

You’re talking about science with a conscience, exploration with a conscience. What I found very fascinating is this idea that a legend became a reality. Your aunt and uncle would tell stories and you followed the legend to a very real place.

You’re absolutely right. I guess I’ve always been curious about things, and it was about a year of asking questions. I started doing the geothermal maps of Peru and then in the process, some of my colleagues from the Peruvian Geological Survey started doing this map of the known geothermal manifestations, i.e., hot springs, fumaroles, etc., across Peru. I was meeting with them, and I took a look at their mappings, and I was like, “Wow! Look at all these hot points in the jungle.” I had no clue that there were all these hot springs in the jungle.

So I asked my colleagues, “Hey, I remember hearing about this legend of the Boiling River in the search for Paititi (El Dorado)?” And everyone said, “No, man. It’s probably just a legend. There’s always a possibility that there’s weird stuff out there, but we haven’t seen anything even remotely close to like a big thermal river.” So I moved on.

But you didn’t give up.

I asked a bunch of people about it because I got really curious, and weird stuff happens all the time, and I kept asking, “Okay, could this be real? Could this be real?” Eventually, I had enough people telling me that, “It’s just an exaggerated claim. It’s just a legend.” One guy even very bluntly said, “Hey, you’re the one getting the PhD. This is making you look bad. I’d stop asking stupid questions,” and that stuck with me, and then I personally gave up on it.

Then it came back into your life from an unexpected source?

I was at a family dinner when my aunt asks off-handedly, “Anything interesting in your research?” My response was, “Nah, I got really curious about this old legend, but everyone says it’s fake, so it’s not true, and it makes perfect sense. No volcano is in the Peruvian Amazon. We’re not going to see a boiling river.” Then she suddenly says very seriously, “It’s there. And I’ve been there. I’ll take you!”

I found it really fascinating that so many people in the scientific community insisted it was a myth. When you go there you found that there are ancient shaman protecting it, and that’s still the case to this day, correct?

There are two shamans. One of them is the head shaman of a community called Mayantuyacu. The other one is the head shaman of the Sanctuario Huistin. I’ve worked with both of them and received their blessing to study the river.

And then you actually get there and see people living there and tourists had already found the spot as well!

One of the things that surprised me most not only that people live here but also that they have an eco-touristic and shamanic healing center, so you have people coming from all over the world. By no way am I the first outsider to visit. Some of the shaman’s apprentices are the big group of Canadian apprentices that I did not expect to find. There were Argentines. There were Italians. There were Spaniards. There was virtually every country represented except for Peru, which kind of blew my mind. And I think that, again, goes back to the thing that most fascinates me about life, and I guess this does go philosophical, but there’s so much that we pass by that we take for granted in our every day.

True, true! So let me ask, what makes a river boil?

You need three things to get a boiling river. Those three things are, number one, a tremendous source of heat, number two, a tremendous source of water, and then, lastly, you need a plumbing system that gets the water, this hot water, from deep in the earth to the surface quickly.

So there must be a nearby volcano?

It’s almost counterintuitive, right? But it’s because that plumbing system isn’t there. If you go down deep, the temperatures at the volcano are significantly hotter than the temperatures that you’d see at that from the Boiling River area, because it’s not volcanic, but again, it’s that question of the plumbing system. How do you get so much hot water to the surface?

How do you feel then when you come back from a place like that? Do you feel a sort of lust to go out and find more places or is your focus more on going back to discover more about the river?

Last year was the first year that they had 24/7 electricity, which was a big change at Mayantuyacu. Before that, I had spent months out there looking up at the night sky, and it was just part of my nightly ritual. I currently live in Dallas, Texas. I’m at Southern Methodist University. We live in this world, and I’m just talking about personal discoveries right now, I feel more connected to the night sky down in the jungle than I do to the night sky here in my apartment in Dallas, simply because I don’t see it, because I don’t get the opportunity to go outside and look up because there’s light pollution, because I simply don’t make time for it. That is honestly embarrassing to me.

I can’t believe how many native plants in the Amazon that I could identify more quickly than I could right now when I’m walking around Dallas. You just realize how much you don’t know. We do live in a world that’s hyperconnected. We’ve got our phones in our pockets all the time. The average American spends 80% of their day, roughly they say, indoors and looking in front of a screen, and we’ve forgotten everything that’s special around us in the sense of the unique ecosystems where we already live.

You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to discover something. You can discover things in your backyard, right?

It doesn’t matter if scientists discover something new and amazing anywhere, unless it’s relevant to you. Chances are you’re not going to care and chances are it won’t change your life in any meaningful way. However, if you look at the concept of a personal discovery, then things become interesting.

Say, if your dad ever got the opportunity to take you outside to a place where his culture developed and was able to tell you, ‘This is this. This is that. This is what we used to use it for. This is what we use it for today,” that connects you to your land. That’s personal discovery, and I think it’s just as important as the scientific discoveries.

How many adventures started with a single story around a dinner table?

I think more than ever, we should be calling individuals to seek these personal discoveries. It doesn’t matter if science knows this or not. I think what’s important is, do you know it? Do you realize it’s there? Because if we’re going to change the world, it starts with the individual.

How would you recommend someone who’s maybe just starting out in life that they start their own path of discovery?

Number one, travel; simply because I think travel is fantastic. If you can’t do that, go outside. Traveling does not imply going on an airplane. You can travel 10 feet away from your door, but definitely travel.

One of the things that helped me as far as finding a passion, finding something to dig into was — and this is going to sound weird — ask yourself what makes you angriest. Love and hate are opposite ends of the same spectrum, and if there’s something that really makes you angry, that really pisses you off, I think that it’s because you have a great love for that thing.

What makes you angry about the river?

Nothing has been easy about doing any of this for me: personally, emotionally, financially. And just knowing that it’s not easy but the thing that’s ultimately kept me going is what am I fighting for. I’m fighting for this amazing patch of earth. The Boiling River is not mine in the sense of not culturally, not ancestrally. I love it. I see it. I’m just a visitor there, and I will forever be just a visitor there, but nonetheless, it’s still part of my planet earth. It’s part of our planet. And it needs to be protected.

What are you looking forward to in the future?

In the immortal words of Tupac, “haters gonna hate.” Any time you try to do something worthwhile, you will always have people trying to discredit you, and especially now. My goal is to have such strong scientific documentation that no one can say a word. I’m sure they’ll find something else to say, but at least, I’m trying to proactively make their arguments as weak as possible. This is the culmination of six years of study.

You must be getting excited.

We’re going to finally be able to unveil the origin of the waters, the origin of the heat, and a lot of really, really other cool stuff about the Boiling River. I shouldn’t speak out of turn, but there’s a lot of really cool stuff coming. A lot of these are brand new discoveries. It’s really cool to be able to say “No one in the history of planet earth knew the answer to that question and now we do,” and that is exciting for me.

What would you say is the best way for someone to get involved to help with this project?

There’s multiple forms, and it all depends on what you want to do. Different people have different limits. Donation to the project directly to help with the scientific and legal work or simply buying the TED book — which all the proceeds on my end go entirely to the project. I personally like the visiting option. In my best-case scenario, everyone would visit this site and go with the book.

This project’s about science, for sure, but it’s also about the empowerment of a local community. You’re empowering these people through giving them business. You’re giving them experiences to be better hosts, to be better managers of this ecological site, and you are taking away these amazing experiences at the river itself.

Any advice for the weary adventurer on visiting the site?

Absolutely. Be super careful around there. It is extremely dangerous, and boiling alive is one of the most awful, awful horrible ways to go. I’ve seen a bunch of animals fall in. There’s a prophecy right now saying that the spirit of the river is angry that so much deforestation and that the jungle has been mistreated by a lot of the locals. So according to this recent prophesy, so to speak, the river was first going to kill a local and then it was going to kill a tourist to send a message for the locals to get their act together, and recently, there was a young child who fell in the river.

I guess we have the luxury of looking at coincidences as just that. But in a shamanic world coincidences are a harsh reality.

You nailed it.

Thank you so much for the chat!

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