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Five days in Atacama or split with Bolivia?

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Hi:

We are currently scheduled to spend six days/five night in San Pedro de Atacama at the Explora lodge there (this would be in Jan. 2009). We’re flying into Calama on a LAN South America Pass and flying out of Calama on the first leg of a One World Explorer (round-the-world) ticket. That means I believe I have some flexibility on the front-end of our ticket (SCL-CJC), but not a lot of flexibility on the back end (which is the first leg of our round-the-world ticket). After Atacama, we’re going to Easter Island, then Patagonia (also staying at Explora lodge there), and then on and on.

I’m concerned that I have us spending too much time in Atacama. The cost of Explora in Atacama is also a factor. The last relevant factor is that I’d like to see the Bolivian salt flats (and am unclear how the salt flats in Atacama compare). As a result, I’m debating whether I should try and break up our six days/five nights in Atacama/Calama with a visit to Bolivia. Alternatively, I could probably fly into La Paz, instead of Calama, and then do a one-way trip through the salt flats, ending up in Atacama. However, I do have some altitude-sickness concerns, since that would mean embarking on the salt flats tour on our first or second day in La Paz, after just having come from sea level in Santiago. If we started in Bolivia, we’d still only have five nights before we need to catch our Calama flight back to Santiago.

Has anyone done the Atacama/Bolivia salt flats tour? Is there a significant difference between the two (I assume there is). Do you recommend doing to one way (i.e., starting in La Paz, ending up in Atacama) or as a round-trip circuit (i.e., starting and finishing in Atacama). One other data point I’ll throw in is that my wife doesn’t really like “on the go” vacations too much, and it may be that trying to cram a three-day tour through the Bolivian salt flats into our five days in the northern Chile/Bolivia area is too much (and would leave our Atacama visit too rushed).

Also, has anyone here stayed at Explora Atacama? Did you think it was worth it? I stayed at Longitude 131 several years ago in Australia, which up to that time was the most expensive place I’ve ever stayed, and really did *not* think it was worth the price (or even half the price). So, I’d be curious to hear other’s views.

Many thanks for any responses to this rambling question.

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