La Feria News

UTRGV Honors College Students Take On Peru’s Daunting Ausungate Trek

Ten UTRGV Honors College students challenged themselves mentally and physically during a study abroad trip to Peru. The course, covering alpine biology and pre-Columbian architecture, included a demanding 45-mile trek around Ausungate, a sacred Inca Mountain. The courses were co-taught by UTRGV Honors College Dean Mark Andersen and Honors College Faculty Fellow Dr. Robert Bradley. Courtesy Photo


‘This was the hardest thing I ever did in my life …’ – UTRGV Honors College junior Anelis Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Ten UTRGV Honors College students pushed their mental and physical limits this June, during the university’s second of two summer study abroad trips to Peru.

The course, covering alpine biology and pre-Columbian architecture, culminated with a grueling 45-mile trek around the sacred Inca Mountain called Ausungate.

Alpine Ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes and Machu Picchu/Ausungate were co-taught by UTRGV Honors College Dean Mark Andersen and Honors College Faculty Fellow Dr. Robert Bradley.

Over their 21-day course of study, the group climbed four challenging mountain passes:

  • Upis, at 4,700 meters (15,420 feet).
  • Ausungate Colcha, 4,900 meters (16,076 feet)
  • Qampa, 5,000 meters (16,404 feet).
  • And Palomani, 5,100 meters (16,732 feet).

Bradley said that, to get an idea of the heights that the students – all accustomed to living at sea-level – were able to scale, consider that on the final pass, they comparatively were only a few hundred meters from the altitude of the base camp of Mount Everest.

For the past two years, Andersen’s vision for UTRGV’s Honors College has been to set new standards for achievement and excellence.

“The daunting Ausungate trek raises the bar for study abroad distinction,” Andersen said. “As part of this goal, I committed Honors College funding to purchase tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads – purchases that will support the Peru program for years to come. In fact, the gear was put to use earlier in the summer to outfit the School of Art’s minimester Salkantay Trek in Peru.”

The students’ exhaustion from physical exertion in the high altitude, along with bitter cold, quickly faded when they returned to their comfortable lodgings in Cuzco.

“This was the hardest thing I ever did in my life” said senior economics major Anelis Villarreal from McAllen. “Now I can say I’ve finally gone camping – starting in a remote region of the Peruvian Andes.”

Senior biology major Javier Topete from Mission, was delighted to find out the Ausungate trail cut through a snow field right before the top of Ausungate Colcha Pass. Experiencing snow for the first time, Topete and Alma de la Mora, a pre-med biology major from Weslaco, played in the snow under a mountain glacier at an altitude of 16,700 feet.

“Alma and I tried to make snow angels, but the frozen snow was too hard and didn’t yield,” he said. “We stopped before our hiking clothes got too wet – which can be dangerous up there when the sun sets.”

De la Mora was one of three on the trip who had received Gilman Scholarships, along with senior biology major Jaqueline Becerra from Mission and senior history major Ofelia Alonso. The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, thereby gaining skills critical to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. Twelve UTRGV students were awarded Gilman Scholarships this year, enabling them to participate in various study abroad programs over the summer.

“This is the first time UTRGV students have taken advantage of the Gilman Scholarship Program,” said Alan Earhart, director of International Programs and Partnerships, a department in theOffice of Global Engagement. “Of all the UT System schools, only UT Austin received more Gilman scholarships this year than UTRGV.”

De la Mora, Becerra and Alonso remained in Peru longer to fulfill the time requirements for their scholarships. That extension required a four-day trek into the cloud forest to see Choquequirao. Referred to as the “new Machu Picchu,” the Incan Empire city (15th- and 16th-century) is only about 30 percent uncovered and harder to reach than Machu Picchu.

“I love adventure and I knew this would be the perfect program for me,” said Alonso, who chose to major in history as a step toward law school. “I am an art history minor and an Honors student, so the courses are very much in line with my degree plan and my interests.”

Environmental Sciences senior Rosamarie Perdomo, from Pharr, said she was mesmerized by the rare and colorful species of cloud forest birds in and around Machu Picchu.

“Our group would constantly hear things like, ‘Look! There’s a Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and there’s a Highland Mot Mot’ – which kept us aware of the fantastic diversity of species in one of this planet’s most beautiful destinations,” Perdomo said.

For Zafira Castillo, a senior chemistry major from La Feria, the trip’s ultimate reward was the mountain sky. Each night on the Ausungate trek, Castillo said, she would venture out from the relative warmth of her tent to observe the Southern Cross, the constellation within the Milky Way, where she watched for shooting stars.

The 10 students who participated in the ARTS 4359 & HONR 4388 study abroad to Peru are:

  • Ofelia  Alonso, history major from Brownsville
  • Jaqueline Becerra, biology major from Mission
  • Zafira Castillo, chemistry major from La Feria
  • Alma De La Mora, pre-med biology major from Weslaco
  • Janet Ekezie, political science & philosophy major from San Antonio
  • Alberto Lopez, biology major from Monterrey, MX
  • Rosamarie Perdomo, environmental sciences major, from Pharr
  • Javier Topete, biology major from Mission
  • Julia Vanoye, pre-med biology major from Matamoros, MX
  • Anelis  Villarreal, economics major from McAllen

For more information about study abroad, contact International Programs and Partnerships in the Office of Global Engagement at (956) 665-3572 or

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