Cotopaxi Ecuador

I got to hike the second highest volcano in the world on my 25th birthday with amazing friends–this day is going to be a hard one to top!

Megan, Kristina, and I hopped in Paul’s car around 6am so we could get an early start to Cotopaxi, a national park just outside of Quito. Paul and Santiago, Kristina’s classmates, navigated the roads while the three of us tried to sleep a little more in the backseat. We had to get to the volcano early in the day because if you arrive too late, the fog covers up the entire thing and you miss the beautiful view. The five of us planned to leave even earlier than 6am but struggled to wake up on time. Hikers intending to climb to the summit usually spend the night at the base camp and start their trek at midnight or 1am in order to avoid the thick fog.

An hour of driving brought us to a small town called Machachi. We stopped there just as the breakfast stands were opening up, and we ordered a few bowls of encebollado mixto con concha y camaron, a seafood stew filled with large chunks fish, shrimp and shellfish. A bowl was only $3.00 USD! The stew is served with ketchup and mustard (weird, right?) and it also comes with a side of popcorn that you’re suppose to throw into your soup. The popcorn addition was amazing, but I was reluctant to mix in the ketchup and mustard. We also enjoyed music from a live band that played while we ate which was sweet treat in the morning.

Encebollado Mixto

Once we arrived at the entrance of the national park, the security guard almost didn’t let us through because Megan and I were tourists–apparently, you need a guide if you’re not a local. Paul and Santiago motioned for us to go wait in the car, and when they came back we were told that we were fine to drive through. Not sure what they said, but I’m so glad they let us in!

The dirt road leading to Volcán Cotopaxi was beautiful. We constantly stopped to take pictures, and you can see below that the fog was already starting to cover parts of the volcano so we were definitely racing the clock.

Road to Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

After driving up a few windy roads to a parking lot where other cars and tour busses that carried mountain bikes stopped at (I think people can bike back down the volcano!), the fog had cleared a bit and we were ready to go.

Cotopaxi Elevation Sign

It was freezing (the volcano’s summit is at 19,342 feet), and the parking lot sits at such a high elevation so we could feel the temp drop immediately after stepping out of the car. The view was worth it though, and then we began our hike up to the base camp!

Cotopaxi Climb

The path was made of loose dirt/gravel so it felt like you were climbing up a sandy beach. With the strenuous (and slippery!) road and thin air, we took a few breaks along the way…but eventually we made it to the base camp (which is at just under 16,000 feet in elevation)!

Paul Santiago Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi Meg Steph

Cotopaxi Panorama

Meg Steph Cotopaxi

The view from the base camp was breathtaking and truly surreal. We also walked up the glacier path a bit and saw some camp sites set up, ready to hike to the summit of the volcano.

It was lightly snowing when ventured back down to the car, and when we looked back, the volcano was almost entirely covered by the fog so we had barely made it on time to catch the killer views. On the drive back to the main roads, Santiago noticed that the brakes were not working properly (luckily, we were driving very slowly at the time) but it was a little startling. When adding additional brake fluid didn’t work, we thought we were going to be stuck in Cotopaxi all day. After about an hour of just hanging out, the breaks were working again! Turns out that the brake fluid had been frozen from the cold and needed some time to warm up. Lesson learned! :)

After arriving back in Quito, Paul and Santiago took us to their friend’s restaurant for an early dinner where we were given the VIP treatment. We only ordered a few plates of mote con chicharron (pictured below) but so many more dishes came out. It was amazing!

Mote con Chicharron

Mote con Chicharron

We shared a huge bowl of soup, and I even got a special birthday plate of carne colorada!

Carne Colorada

Carne Colorada

Santiago also had one of the servers sneak out and buy me a birthday candle…a question mark birthday candle, that is :) It was really sweet! I’m guessing that either the server was unsure of how old I was turning or that the question mark was the only candle at the store. Regardless, the dish was ridiculously delicious–I’d be ok eating this instead of cake on every birthday going forward.

Steph Bday Meal

After stuffing ourselves until we couldn’t eat anymore, we headed back to Kristina’s and just hung out for the rest of the night. The next day, we all stopped by the local craft market before Megan and I headed to the airport to catch our flight back to California. It was a bittersweet departure, but I’m SO thankful that we got to visit Kristina and meet all of her wonderful friends on this trip. What an amazing adventure!

GNO in Ecuador

South America was incredible, and I’m so grateful that I was able to experience this trip with my best friend.

Hasta pronto, SOUTH AMERICA!!! I guarantee that I’ll be back. <3

Group at Cotopaxi

[This is the final post of the South America series. Click here to see the entire recap of my trip.]

I’m sure some of you have already noticed, but this blog has been pretty quiet due to an unexpected (but much needed) blogging hiatus. This is actually the longest I’ve ever gone in 2.5 years without posting, which is kind of startling but I’m absolutely ok with that. I didn’t mean to take a blogging break but something just told me I had to. As rewarding as this blog is, it takes a huge amount of time and effort. And sometimes, I really enjoy stepping away from the computer screen and it’s difficult to balance my time. But I find that I come back to this space every single time, and when I do, I’m glad I did.

So here I am, refreshed and determined to finish my South America Recap (just one more post after this!), and I’m also looking forward to posting some fun recipes that I’ve had on my mind lately.

So thanks for sticking it out with me :)

-Steph

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Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador – June 2013

Mitad del Mundo South America

After spending the night at the Lima airport and running off of about 4 hours of sleep, Megan and I finally arrived in Ecuador. Kristina, our very close friend from college, picked us up and drove us back to her apartment. Kristina’s studying for her Master’s degree in Quito so when we were planning our trip, we knew we had to visit her. We relaxed in her apartment while she went back to school for a few hours. Later that night, she and her friends took us for a quick night tour of the city. We got to see her school and a bit of the beautiful, historic buildings of old town Quito. Then we went to bed pretty early that night so we would be well rested for our day trip to Mitad del Mundo (aka the center of the world) the next day!

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador

Kristina’s friend picked us all up the next morning and we ventured towards Mitad del Mundo. It’s a few hours outside of Quito so we got to see a lot of great scenery on the road! There are actually TWO Mitad del Mundos–one was established by French explorers and is distinguished by a huge monument (pictured below) and the other spot, which was later determined by official GPS calculations, is about 240 meters north of the first line. We visited the monument first and walked around the area for a while.

Mitad del Mundo Ecuador

Mitad del Mundo Equator

Straddling the equator!

Mitad del Mundo Monument

The second center of the world location offers a tour with more history about the area and fun activities that you can only do along the equator line. We got to see water spin in different directions on each side of the equator (not that exciting) and also got a chance to try balancing an egg on the head of a nail (really, really fun!). Some say that these activities are a hoax, but it was really cool to partake in them anyway.

Mitad del Mundo Line

On the drive back, Kristina and her friend raved about the helado (ice cream) in the area so we kept an eye out for heladerias along the side the road. Once we found one, we pulled over and each ordered two scoops. The ice cream was so refreshing and really delicious–a perfect ending to our little adventure!!

Helado Ecuador

When we got back into Quito, we headed to Old Town again but this time to enjoy some food and nightlife. There was a lot of excitement on the streets and it was awesome to see some of the culture in Quito. While walking around, we ate a bunch of empanadas, drank some morocho (a warm rice drink), and shared a plate of mote con chicharrone. Then Megan and I stumbled upon skewers of strawberries that had just been freshly dipped in chocolate. Each skewer was only $1.25 and the strawberries tasted fantastic so we treated ourselves to a few skewers–we really could have eaten the whole batch!

Chocolate Covered Strawberries Quito

This day was also the eve of my birthday so we gathered at a bar that was playing live music and ordered a round of canelazos, a hot drink made of naranjillas and sugar cane alcohol. It was realllly tasty and warmed us up right away! At midnight, a birthday toast was made (ah, 25!!!!) and then we headed home to get some rest before having to wake up at the crack of dawn to head to Cotopaxi, a national park in Ecuador that is the home of the world’s second highest volcano!

Old Town Quito

Celebrating my birthday at midnight – Megan, Kristina, and I on the right with Kristina’s friends!

A birthday volcano hike and a fantastic Ecuadorian birthday meal to come in the final post of this South America series!

Lima Peru

Hey guys! I just spent last weekend attending Outside Lands, a music festival here in SF. It was so much fun! It’s also been over a month since I’ve been back from South America but I still can’t stop thinking about our trip. I was going to write this post and then finish with a recap of Ecuador but I’ve decided to split Ecuador up into two posts (there’s just so much to share!). Sorry it’s taking me so long to get all of these recaps out! Thanks for your patience as I slowly post these recaps–it means a lot to me that I get to share them.

Lima was probably our least favorite city to visit but it could have been because a bunch of our friends told us to spend as little time there as possible or because it was so gloomy/rainy the entire time we were there. We stayed in the Miraflores district, a nicer and very safe district that’s popular with tourists. Although it wasn’t the best city to explore, we had one of the best meals in Peru here! And churros! We ate so many churros…like until we almost threw up.

Miraflores Lima

Restaurants in the Miraflores district

We arrived in Lima around midnight after leaving Huacachina and went straight to our hostel, Piriwana (the sister hostel of the Piriwana hostel we stayed at in Cusco). The bar/dining area at this location has huge windows and we enjoyed our last breakfast in Lima looking out at the streets, drinking coca tea, and slathering our breads with margarine and jam.

Lima Breakfast

We were only in Lima for a day and had decided to spend the night at the airport that night to save some money since our flight to Quito was at 5am  the next morning. Since we had less than 24 hours left in Peru, we set a spending budget for the day, determined to only exchange enough Peruvian Soles to last us the rest of the day before leaving the country. When we finished breakfast, we found a bank and after a bunch of my $20 USD bills got rejected for having slight rips, we strolled to Kennedy Park to check out the bus tours. Megan and I had exchanged enough money for two meals, a bus tour of Downtown Lima, and a cab ride to the airport. After visiting the ticketing office for the bus tours, we actually decided to take a cheaper and shorter tour that consisted of 4 Lima districts instead of going downtown.

After we figured that out, we walked through Kennedy Park (which we thought was going to be very cool but wasn’t even really a park) and checked out all of the feral cats that were just hanging out everywhere in the grass (SO many cats!). Meg and I then headed to the beach and walked up and down the coast a bit. It was foggy but still exceptionally beautiful. Lima sort of sits on a cliff so you have to walk down a bunch of stairs to get down to the water.

Lima Beach Van

The place we picked for lunch wasn’t open for dinner so we knew that we had to start heading in that direction if we wanted to try the food. We went back up the stairs towards the heart of the city and stopped at Parque del Amor, a small park that has a huge statue of 2 people making out and overlooking the ocean :) After that, we walked over to Punto Azul, the highly-recommended lunch spot. The wait was only 20 minutes and after looking over the menu, we decided to forego our dinner plans and put all of the money we had allotted for the day on food towards this one meal. The menu was that appealing!

Punto Azul Ceviche Mixto

We ordered the Punto Azul ceviche mixto which came with mixed seafood, a spicy aji sauce, sweet potatoes, and plantain chips to start. We also split a chicha morada, a traditional purple corn drink which was so amazingly tasty. For our main dishes, I ordered Parihuela (for 26 soles or about $9 USD), a seafood stew served with giant crab legs and TONS of seafood including shrimp, fish, squid, mussels, etc. The flavor sort of reminded me of hot and sour soup but a little more stew-like if that makes any sense.

Parihuela

Parihuela

Megan ordered the baked fish with artichoke hearts and cream sauce (29 soles or about $10 USD). We ate so much during those few hours that we literally felt like we were going to vomit all of the delicious food we just scarfed down but we couldn’t stop eating. The prices were incredible for the quality and quantity of food we received. I highly recommend going to Punto Azul if you’re ever in Lima!

Fish in Artichoke Sauce Punto Azul

After lunch, we staggered back to Kennedy Park to catch our bus tour. Shortly after we boarded the double decker bus, we realized that the bus tour was a huge mistake. We had eaten so much food which caused an intense food coma, the weather wasn’t very cooperative so we were pretty cold on the top floor, and we realized that we should have just saved our 20 soles and walked around instead. We saw multiple “very important schools” and “important hospitals” about every 15 minutes along the route. The bus did take us along the coast for a little bit so that was really great but overall, I think the most exciting part of the tour was when the whole top floor of the bus had to duck because of the numerous low-hanging olive tree branches that would sweep into our bus throughout the tour.

Lima Bus Tour Ocean

Once we finished the tour, we hopped out and ventured to find the churro place we passed earlier in the day. We couldn’t leave Peru without getting a final churro fix! And this place hit the spot. After ordering 3 churros (dulce de leche, chocolate, and vanilla), we realized we needed more. One order of churros con chocolate (6 plain churros with piping hot chocolate fondue) and a cortado later, we were ready to hit the road.

Dulce de Leche Churros Lima Peru

Dulce de Leche Churros

Churros con chocolate

We walked back to our hostel to grab our bags, bargained a cab ride from 60 soles to 40 soles, and then headed to the airport.

Next stop…the center of the world! Quito, Ecuador.

[2 more travel posts and then normal blog posts will resume :) Thanks for reading!]

Huacachina Sand Dunes

The little town of Huacachina is beyond amazing. We only spent one night there but every moment of it was so much fun! If you are around the Lima area, I highly suggest visiting this place. Disclaimer: This post if filled with way too many sunset photos. But I don’t care!

There was only one minor travel issue (yay!) on the way down which consisted of Megan and I hanging out too long at the airport after we landed in Lima, losing track of time, and then barely making our bus to Ica! The Cruz del Sur bus station in Lima is about 3 times as big as the one in Cusco so we didn’t anticipate such long lines to get our tickets and check our bags. The ticketing system at the bus station is sort of like going to the DMV–you receive a number from a self-serve kiosk based on the reason you are there. In our case, we needed to get a hard copy of our tickets. Trying to decipher which number/category to choose was the first time Megan and I truly realized how poor our Spanish skills really were–we didn’t understand any of the options! Except for the first option, which was to purchase tickets–the ONLY option we knew we didn’t need.

Megan ended up frantically selecting every option, hoping that 1 out of our 5 numbers would be called before our bus left without us. While we were fumbling with our numbers and trying to figure out where we could check our backpacks, we realized that a few of the numbers were being called all at once so I grabbed them from Megan and ran to the first teller yelling, “Es mi numero! Es mi numero!” so that they wouldn’t pass us up. I almost had to hip-check a guy who was trying to get to the teller before me! I’ll never know what the number was actually for but fortunately, we got our tickets, checked our backpacks and made it on the bus with about 5 minutes to spare :) It was a 4.5 hour bus ride to Ica and then we got a taxi to the little town of Huacachina.

Huacachina Lagoon

Huacachina wraps around a small lagoon in the middle of the desert. You can literally walk around this lagoon in about 15-2o minutes. The town itself is pretty average, with little shops, restaurants, and hotels along the main street but the view of the desert just outside the town is incredible.

Bananas Adventure Hostel

The courtyard at our hostel

Our hostel here was…interesting :) When we arrived, it was very late at night and the first thing we did was head to our room. It was our first private room of the trip and we were so excited! Until we realized that it shared a wall with the group bathroom and had a window that opened up to the bathroom (why???). You could hear EVERYTHING. We heard every little detail in private conversations, people coming in one at a time to brush their teeth, and I swear that one person even heard me whisper to Megan, “They forgot to turn off the lightttttt….” because all of a sudden we heard footsteps running back to the bathroom and then the lights turned off. Oops! And when we woke up in the morning, there was some sort of construction going on in the courtyard just outside our door. This was probably the worst hostel we stayed at during our time in Peru but I’m sure it would have been much better experience if we just had a different room.

However, the courtyard (pictured above) was amazing and had a bunch of hammocks for us to relax in, and the beautiful flowers and trees made everything feel like paradise, which totally made up for the weird room situation.

Steph Hammock

We ventured around town to grab a bite to eat before our dune buggy tour and our view during lunch overlooked the lagoon–so amazing. For the first time during our trip, we finally ordered ceviche! We also grabbed a plate of chicharrones mixto (deep fried chicken, fish, shrimp, squid) and it was really tasty especially when paired with an Inca Kola (the local soda that tastes like bubble gum). Everything was delicious and the people at the restaurant were incredibly friendly. They even gave us some fresh passion fruit juice on the house.

Ceviche and chicharrones Huacachina

After lunch, we walked around the lagoon a bit more and then waited for our dune buggy and sandboarding tour. We bought the tour through the hostel and it was SO WORTH IT! For only 30 soles (less than $11) we were driven around huge sand dunes and given sandboarding lessons. It was one of the best experiences throughout our whole trip! Pics don’t do it justice but I’ll try…

Desert Huacachina

Meg Steph Huacachina

The dune buggy ride was probably our favorite part of the tour. The tour guide drives really fast and finds huge sand dunes for the buggy to go over so it feels like you’re on a roller coaster in the middle of the desert! Here’s a short video clip of our ride:

 

The buggy ride was probably about 70% of the tour so we got to see a lot of the desert area!

Megan Sandboarding

Megan about to sandboard down the dune for the first time!

Sandboarding was really fun as well. It’s pretty much like snowboarding except the boards are very basic and you get sand everywhere! We were guided down two huge dunes. Some of the girls went down on their stomachs and others stood up. Megan and I stood up but after struggling with keeping the weak velcro straps fastened we realized that it’d probably be more fun to just lay on our bellies and penguin it down the dunes. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go again so we never got to try going head first! 

Huacachina Sand Dunes Sunset

Our entire group hopped back into the buggy after sandboarding, and our tour guide raced to the top of a huge sand dune so we could catch the sunset. It was so ridiculously gorgeous–Megan and I couldn’t believe it.

Cue obsurd amount of sunset photos…

Huacachina Sunset Dune Buggy

Huacachina Desert Sunset

Meg Steph Huacachina Dunes

Desert Sun Huacachina

Huacachina Sun

Oh, and let’s also add this sunset video in the mix while we’re at it :)

 

After the sunset, we were driven to a dune that overlooks the town of Huacachina. What an oasis! It was the perfect way to end the day and tour. Once we got back into town, Meg and I grabbed a taxi and headed back to the bus station so we could catch the bus back to Lima where we would spend one night before heading off to Ecuador!

[Two more travel posts coming up next week and then normal posts will resume :)]

Machu Picchu Meg Steph

This is sort of a long post (sorry!) so feel free to just scroll through the pics if you’d like. :)

The bus from Lake Titicaca brought us back to Cusco and straight to the Cusco bus station so we could make our second attempt at going to Aguas Calientes, and we finally made it to the train! The PeruRail cars for the Vistadome train are incredible and put Amtrak to shame (to be fair, I think we got upgraded because we had to change our itinerary).

There are huge windows on both of the walls and even the ceiling so it almost seems like the train doesn’t have walls and you can see everything around you. The beginning of the train ride was pretty normal and then all of a sudden the scenery turns into beautiful exotic plants and lush greenery that completely engulfs even the tiniest area of these gigantic mountains. We also ate a great meal on the train–quinoa, cheese and potatoes! And of course, coca tea :)

Vistadome Peru Rail

Vistadome train on PeruRail

Megan and I only booked our first two hostels (in Lima and Cusco) for the beginning of our trip before we left California so when we were in Cusco trying to get a hostel for Aguas Calientes, we ran into some trouble. Since tourist season just began, all of the hostels were unavailable through HostelWorld, leaving us with a $350 hotel room as our cheapest option. Luckily, our hostel in Cusco has its very own travel agent, and she was able to get us a in a hostel for about $15 USD per night that wasn’t available online. Success, right?!

Almost. Once we arrived in Augas Calientes, the travel agent told us that there would be a member of the hostel holding a sign with our names on it and waiting to pick us up at the station. When we got into Aguas Calientes…no one was there! Because we thought we were going to get picked up right away, we didn’t have the address of the hostel leaving us stranded at the train station with little information on where we were suppose to go. We waited for a while and then Megan decided that no one was coming (I was still optimistic at this point) so we went to the market right outside the entrance of the train station and did some “therapeutic shopping”. After buying a few things, we walked back to the train station to see if anyone showed up from the hostel. Nope. With the employees from other hostels yelling the names of their guests, we even considered yelling, “Supertramp! Supertramppppp!” which was the name of our hostel to see if it’d help. Instead, we asked the information booth if we could get a taxi. We knew that Aguas Calientes was a tiny town but no one informed us that there are no cars, buses, or taxis in the entire town. Fail #34 of the day.

Aguas Calientes, Peru

Aguas Calientes, Peru

After a few text messages to friends in the US later, we got the hostel’s address and I asked a man who worked at another hostel if he knew where the place was. He pointed out the cross streets to us on a map, and I asked him how long it would take to walk there. He told us it was a 3-4 minute walk, although it looked more like a 15-20 miniute walk to us on the map. I asked him if it was safe for us to walk there and he replied, “Yesss!! No…” and then walked away. Perfect. Megan and I really had no choice that this point so we walked to the hostel.

Low and behold the hostel was literally located about 4 minutes from the train station the whole time, and it was completely safe to walk there. We felt so dumb and defeated but were happy to finally be at our hostel and in Aguas Calientes! Once we walked in, we found out that there wasn’t a reservation for us in the system for that night, hence the reason no one was there to pick us up from the station! Fail #36 of the day. Luckily, there were extra beds in a 12 person room and the only caveat was that it would be loud since they were having a launch party the next night for their new restaurant.

The first thing we did was take glorious showers! Then we headed to the rooftop deck–which had a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains–and popped open a cold beer. We tried two versions of the local Cusqueña beer, hung out with some of the hostel employees and other travelers, and then ventured off to find some dinner on the main strip of the town. An earlier conversation at the hostel with a brother-sister duo sparked a craving for churros so we went on a search for them after dinner. Unfortunately, there was not one churro to be found in Aguas Calientes so we retreated to our room and went to bed early in order to get up at 4:30am to head up to the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Note to those visiting Machu Picchu: Get your bus tickets the night before your journey to MP. Fail #40. We arrived at the bus stop around 5am and would have probably been on the first bus up the mountain had we bought our bus tickets the night before. However, we were still on a bus early enough to beat the crowds so it all worked out!

All I have to say is…Machu Picchu might be one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen in my life.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu Llama

Machu Picchu Peru

Meg Steph Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Stairs

Machu Picchu Steps (Photo by Megan)

Machu Picchu site

Machu Picchu Breakfast

We split a veggie sandwich, coffee, and bottle of water for breakfast because everything was so expensive (think US theme park prices) but our view during breakfast was well worth the price. It was so surreal and beautiful!

Machu Picchu

Since we got there around 6:15am, it felt like lunch time by the time 9am rolled around. Breakfast was much needed so we took a food break and then went back in and spent a few more hours at the site. When we got back to Aguas Calientes, there was a lot of debate about whether or not we should check out the hot springs but after reading multiple reviews about it just being a luke warm bath for the locals, we opted to rest up and nap instead.

Later that night, we joined the rest of the hostel at the grand opening party for their new restaurant! There was a live band (with a guy who was beatboxing trumpet tunes!), and we were offered so many delicious samples of the restaurant’s new items. I’m so glad we ended up at this hostel because everyone was so welcoming and friendly. The hostel is pretty much run by young travelers, all stopping through and working in return for room and board. It was tempting to stay as well and do the same! Aside from the minor hiccups in the beginning, we had nothing but positive experiences here and we made so many friends.

Artwork in the hostel's new restaurant. "Doña Ofelia always says that the best ingredient of all is love."

Artwork in the hostel’s new restaurant. “Doña Ofelia always says that the best ingredient of all is love.”

We snuck out of the party early to go to bed so we could get up in time for our 5am train ride back to Cusco. When we got up to leave, the party was still going on! We said our goodbyes and then began our travel to Huacachina. This travel day consisted of: taking the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, cabbing an hour and a half back to Cusco (for only $28 USD total!), picking up our backpacks at our previous hostel, cabbing to the airport, flying to Lima, getting on a 4.5 hour bus ride to Ica, and then cabbing from Ica to Huacachina.

On our way to the Cusco airport, we made a pit stop and finally got our churro fix! They were some of the best churros I’ve ever eaten. Made fresh on the street and for less than 2 soles (72 cents USD), you can either get one filled with dulce de leche or a bag of 6 plain ones. Churro heaven–check out the video below of them being made!

The travel day was sooo long but the destination was worth it–stay tuned for the next post! It will be shorter, I promise!! :)

[Normal blog posts will resume soon. Thanks for reading!]

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