Hiking the remote but worldy, ancient but modern, Colca Canyon

It’s mid-afternoon, and our small group is catching its breath after slowly scaling the steep, winding trails of Peru’s Colca Canyon. We sit in silence as we look over an ancient landscape of sheer cliff sides, verdant river beds and cultivated terraces — likely the same scene Inca settlers beheld more than five centuries ago. In the midst of this majesty, this grandeur, this natural wonder that makes us intimately aware of our isolation in the world’s second deepest canyon, our guide pulls out his smart phone and plays a scene from Kung Fu Panda. We all laugh.

If there’s a place that perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of the modern world — its poverty beside plenty, its new technologies and ancient traditions, its interconnectedness and continued isolation — it’s the Colca Canyon. Local women wearing traditional Cabana dresses bring Powerade and Snickers in on pack mules to sell to tourists. After a long day hand-tilling terraces in continuous cultivation since the time before the Inca, farmers drink beer and listen to Peruvian Cumbia over loudspeakers. It’s as if rather than allow globalization and tourism to completely change them, the people here have wrapped their lifestyle around these inexorable forces and made them their own.

We came into the canyon by bus from Arequipa, and right away I became fascinated by the lives of the people who live there. As we slogged and sweated and huffed our way through an often grueling two-day hike, we ran into countless locals simply living their day-to-day lives on the precarious cliff sides, not looking the least bit tired or similarly concerned about losing their grip and dropping several hundred feet to their deaths.  These are people whose lives have changed in many ways since the floodgates of tourism were opened, but who also live lifestyles remarkably similar to their Inca and pre-Inca ancestors. They’re people who come into contact with travelers from all corners of the world every day — much more worldly, you might say, than your average suburban American — but who walk hours up steep cliffs to the nearest school, and who need to be strapped to a mule for a daylong journey to the nearest hospital should they need emergency medical care.

That night, as I sat by candlelight at our off-the-grid canyon lodge, I thought about these things. I thought about how the world was changing but not changing. I looked up at the stars — clearer stars than I’ve ever seen — tuned my iPhone to a soothing melody, and drifted off to sleep.