Survival Guide: Boiling Point

Image of boiling river
Art by Istvan Banyai

Boiling Point

Picture of Andrés Ruzo

Andrés Ruzo

National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee
Expertise: Geothermal scientist
Location: Peru

Photograph by Sofía Ruzo

Editor's note: This story was updated in September 2015.

As a geothermal scientist, I know that “boiling rivers” exist—but they’re always near volcanoes. You need a lot of energy to heat up that much water. Yet here in Peru, more than 400 miles from the nearest active volcano, was the Boiling River of the Amazon.

The river’s ancient name, Shanay-timpishka, loosely translates to “boiled with the heat of the sun.” I've found that water begins to feel painful to the skin at 117ºF—and most of my measurements along the nearly four-mile river ranged between 120° and 196°. The locals think it’s so hot because of the Yacumama, “Mother of the Waters,” a giant serpent spirit who gives birth to hot and cold waters and is represented by a large serpent head-shaped boulder at the river’s headwaters.

The shaman who guards the sacred river had granted me permission to study it. He told me, “Use your feet like eyes.” You can’t see heat, but you can feel it when you step near it. I wore sandals.

I reached a part of the river where the bank was hot mud, too dangerous to walk on. I left my wife, who is my field partner, at a safe place downstream, then jumped from one small rock to another along the river to get to the boiling spring I needed to sample. Each breeze blew hot vapor in my direction, forcing me to squint as I took the water sample. The heat from the scalding sample bottle emanated through my backpack and into my back. I heard thunder, then the rain came. A white curtain of steam rose rapidly from the waters, caused by the temperature differential between cold rain and hot water. It was a whiteout, and I could see no way out.

I stood in pouring rain, on a rock the size of a sheet of paper—between a boiling hot spring and a fast-flowing 180°F river as wide as a two-lane road. I needed to let my wife know I was OK. I whistled a song to her and she whistled back.

At these temperatures, I would have third-degree water burns in less than a second. I’ve seen many animals boiled alive in this river—eyes always seem to cook first, turning milky white. I kept whistling.

After 15 minutes the rain stopped and the steam cleared. A hard rain in most situations would have been inconsequential. Here, for a matter of minutes, it thinned the line between researching and being boiled alive.

—Andrés Ruzo, National Geographic Young Explorer grantee

Related: Adventures of Taking the Earth's Temperature

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