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Prehistory to pre-Columbian Mexico

Study the civilizations that shaped early mankind

By Vacations Staff

Vacations Magazine: Prehistory to pre-Columbian Mexico
Arizona Office of Tourism
Corrosive forces have made their mark on the American Southwest. Ancient rivers carved great (occasionally Grand) canyons, and water, wind and frost shaped spires, hoodoos and a pair of iconic "mittens" near the Utah-Arizona border.

The West and East Mitten Buttes, part of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, are the result of erosion working against Permian and Triassic sandstone laid somewhere between 201 and 299 million years ago. It's strange to think that this site is more closely associated with classic Westerns -- Monument Valley tourists often are coaxed to John Ford Point, a lookout named for the director of "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers."

Escorted tour provider Cosmos' "Highlights of the Canyonlands" is a seven-day exploration of geologic wonders in Arizona and Utah. Traveling round trip from Las Vegas, guests will spend the night in a Grand Canyon lodge, survey Monument Valley on a four-wheel drive excursion, take in Bryce Canyon National Park's hoodoos (slim rock towers that can reach 10 stories tall) and enjoy free time in Zion National Park to hike or hear a history lesson from a park ranger.

Departures are scheduled from April through October and prices begin at $999.

Regaliceratops peterhewsi is a fairly new dinosaur, if such a thing can be said about a 68 million-year-old fossil. The first specimen was discovered in Canada's Alberta province in 2005. Paleontologists called him Hellboy, nicknamed for the horned animal's resemblance to the comic book character as well as the less-than-heavenly experience of digging through eons of river rock to free his remains. The skull alone weighed nearly 600 pounds.

Like many fossils found in this province -- including those of its close cousin, the Triceratops -- this Regaliceratops lived in the Late Cretaceous, the final period before a mass extinction event brought an end to the age of dinosaurs. Alberta, now landlocked, once was a coastal collection of marshes and swamps that served as an ideal preservation area for bones. More than 50 species first were discovered in the region's Dinosaur Provincial Park, a research center for the scientists of the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A 90-mile drive from Calgary, the Royal Tyrrell collection is made up of more than 160,000 fossils, including Hellboy's head and the armor of a nodosaur, a new species unearthed in 2011. Families are treated to activities like Dino Adventure Hour, with a simulated dig site for little ones. Grown-ups also play paleontologist for a day, but they'll dig for treasures using the actual tools and techniques of the experts for a more sophisticated experience.

Escorted tour operator Rocky Mountaineer is known for its stylish trains, and the six-day "First Passage to the West Discovery Self-Drive" includes two full days of relaxed sightseeing by rail in British Colombia. This adventure also offers three days to explore Alberta by rental car, and free time in Calgary can include a trip to the Royal Tyrrell. Prices start at $1,832 and departures are available April to October. -- J.D.

Where did we come from? Why are we here?

The "where" of it, perhaps, can be answered through the findings in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania: remains and tools from modern humans' earliest known ancestors. You can visit on SITA World Tours' weeklong "Tanzania Deluxe Safari" with thrilling game drives through Arusha and Serengeti national parks (tree-climbing lions, anyone?) and Ngorongoro Crater, a caldera filled with zebras, gazelles and other wildlife. You also can view archaeological sites where Homo erectus bones were discovered and encounter some of the earliest signs of mankind, like a cast made from 3.6 million-year-old footprints at the Olduvai Gorge Museum and Visitors Center. Weekly departures are priced from $3,185.

As for the "why," see how early man searched for answers through Paleolithic cave paintings on the 14-day "France & Spain: History, Culture & Wine" tour with Gate 1 Travel. The trip includes wine tastings in the Bordeaux region, a chateau stay outside the UNESCO World Heritage village of St. Emilion and a day spent near the famed Lascaux cave complex of France.

This cavern was decorated roughly 17,000 years ago with about 1,500 engravings and 600 impressive paintings of symbols and regional animals. Many art historians and anthropologists believe it was embellished for ritualistic or spiritual purposes. Preservationists have closed the original site to visitors, but the Gate 1 tour stops at nearby Lascaux II, which replicates works like "Hall of the Bulls." Departures are available April through October from $3,799.

For a different lead on "why," travel to Scotland on CIE Tours' 12-day "Scottish Isles & Glens" itinerary. You'll venture through castles, cruise Loch Ness, participate in a whisky tasting and get a dose of history at Clava Cairns, a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age burial ground that features some of Scotland's mysterious standing stones. Archaeologists only can speculate over the purpose of these towering rock monuments, and think they were erected for ceremonial or religious rites. Departures are available April through October from $2,750. -- R.M.O.

Vacations Magazine: Prehistory to pre-Columbian Mexico
Semitour Perigord

Atop a desert plateau, the pyramids of Giza rise toward a clear blue sky. This trio of structures served as tributary tombs for Egyptian kings and was listed among the classic Seven Wonders of the World.

The oldest of the three, honoring Khufu, also is the largest. Each of its sides measures 5.5 acres and its cumulative masonry, weighing 6.5 million tons, is enough to erect some 30 Empire State Buildings. Construction was completed around 2560 B.C. Standing 481 feet tall, the Great Pyramid was one of the planet's first skyscrapers.

Abercrombie & Kent's "Egypt & The Nile" visits destinations along the world's longest river. After touring the interior of a Giza pyramid, guests gaze up at the Great Sphinx. The statue, sculpted from Egyptian limestone, boasts the body of a recumbent lion and the face of a king.

On the Nile's west bank, near Luxor, royalty such as Tutankhamun and Ramses II were laid to rest in underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings. A tour of these subterranean tributes affords a look at how luminaries prepared for the afterlife, when they expected to become gods. Alongside stockpiles of clothes and food, pharaohs were mummified to preserve their bodies until their souls could return.

This 10-day experience starts at $7,395 and includes a four-night Nile cruise and a stay at the Mena House Hotel, where pyramid views are available from your balcony. Departures are available from January to May and resume between September and December.

A popular legend says that Rome was founded in the year 753 B.C. by the twin sons of Mars, god of war. It was the heart of an empire whose reign, at times, extended throughout Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. A tour of the city is a trip through world history.

Between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, the Roman Forum was a hub for commerce and political gatherings. Among its ruins is the Temple of Caesar, honoring the ruler who was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

To the southeast sits the Colosseum, once the venue for gladiatorial games, and a short drive away is the Vatican, home to St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo painted his masterpiece in the early 16th century.

Discover these sights and others on a seven-night sailing aboard Silversea Cruises' new Silver Muse between the Eternal City and Venice. In Taormina, Sicily, take in the drama of the Greek Theatre, which has set the scene for plays and concerts for centuries. The stars of the show, however, are the views of the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna, Europe's tallest active volcano.

While in Sorrento, travel to Pompeii, where time stands still. In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the city in more than 14 feet of volcanic ash and debris. Excavations over the years now allow a glimpse of first-century life.
The May 29 departure begins at $5,700 for suite accommodations and includes wines, spirits, butler service and gratuities. -- B.S.

Visitors to modern Mexico feel the influence of centuries-old cultures, dating all the way back to 1200 B.C. The country's first civilization is thought to be the Olmecs, settlers along the Gulf Coast best known for the massive, mystifying stone heads they carved. Seventeen still exist in the area today.

The Mayas excelled in agriculture, mathematics and astronomy, even creating a 365-day calendar based on the cycle of the sun. During their golden age, from A.D. 250 to 900, 2 million people lived in more than 40 cities. They were deeply religious, even partaking in human sacrifice; the act is depicted in hieroglyphics inscribed on their temples and pyramids. Traces of the Mayas mysteriously end around the eighth or ninth century, and their stone structures became enveloped in jungle vegetation.

The Aztecs date to the 13th century and, at their peak, Emperor Montezuma II ruled over 5 to 6 million people. Several English words are derived from their language, including coyote, chocolate and chili. The Aztecs had a more defined ending than the Mayas -- Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes defeated them in battle in 1521, terminating the last great Mesoamerican civilization. He razed their capital, Tenochtitlan, and in its place built Mexico City.

Tulum was one of the final Mayan cities built, and it served as an important trading center on the Yucatan Peninsula. Visit these coastal ruins during a stay at the nearby all-inclusive Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa. Step into the property's temazcal, a sweat lodge, to experience a ritual with traditional Mayan and Aztec elements. The "house of heat" is used for spiritual and health benefits. -- K.E.W.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Winter 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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