Archive for the ‘Mexico 2012’ Category

Cave Diving in “The Pit” and the Tulum Ruins

After Cancun it was nice to be back on the road and onward to less touristy areas. We drove southbound past Playa Del Carmen and continued to Tulum. We found a wonderful hostel that was recommended to us by our pal Eddie in Puerto Escondido and settled right in. First we grabbed a few tacos at a local eatery nearby and then headed over to the hostel to check in. We got there just in time as the hostel was nearly booked up that night and we got the last two beds available. Unfortunately, the only remaining beds were in separate rooms, but I decided to snatch them up as I saw a few other travelers stagger into the lobby. They were directed to another hostel in town while I booked the remaining two beds. I felt bad, they were tired and ready to find a place to rest, but so were we! The hostel was called The Weary Traveler and we had a blast there.

The Weary Traveler had a unique system of handling purchases at the bar or front desk that we hadn’t experienced prior. Everything went through a computer and a receipt was printed out which was then presented to the bar or front desk. Everything was logged onto an account made for you when you check in and by using your little room key fob on a small reader next to their computers. You could check your account balance, order breakfast, make purchases at the bar, add more days to your visit, or check out. It was a really cool system, but just seemed a bit weird. One other cool thing the hostel had was a “cook it yourself” set up. They provided free breakfast with a variety of choices; eggs, french toast, pancakes, toast, or cereal. If you chose eggs, french toast, or pancakes, you took your ingredients to a large open skillet and got to cook your own breakfast! It was really neat and I ended up having egg-in-a-hole a few times while we visited. They also offered dinner for a price and you cooked that as well; chicken, hamburger, steak, or fish, and they provided everything for veggies or salad. We ended up getting our own groceries at a local store and made most of our meals ourselves to save a bit of money, but their dinners looked fantastic. Also, our two best friends we met in Puerto Escondido were in Tulum as well, Tash and Jordan! It was awesome to hang out with them for the week before we parted ways once more.

The Weary Traveller also offered a lot of tours and free bus services to the beach. One of the first things we did there was visit the Coba Ruins. The hostel offered tours, but we decided to drive ourselves and save some money. The Coba Ruins were located deep in the Yucatan jungle and had a sort of Indiana Jones feel. We arrived at the ruins and were getting ready to enter the site when we ran into an older gentleman who recommended we rent bicycles inside to get from one site to another. We were really glad we took his advice. Not only was it totally awesome to ride bikes in the jungle while it rained on us, but the distances between sites were pretty far and having the bikes made everything much more fun and accessible.

We came upon some very decrepit looking, but very majestic pyramids at this site. The tallest pyramid was available to climb and had an amazing view of the entire jungle surrounding the site. We put our kick stands up on the bikes and climbed to the top of the pyramid to take in the view. We were up there for a while and just as we started our way down it started to rain. Perfect timing to get some pictures before heading off to see the other parts of the ruins as we rode our bikes through the rain.  So far as we have been traveling through warmer and more humid climates I have welcomed every chance of rain to get a refreshingly cool shower during the mid day heat.

The next day we decided to do some scuba diving in the cenotes located around Tulum. We are not cave certified, but with our Advanced Open Water certification we are able to do dives in cenotes and caves that have sunlit areas. We hadn’t done any diving since we dove in Australia in 2010 and thought about doing a refresher dive before going back into it, but decided not to. It was just as well since the moment we got back into the water with all of our gear, everything came right back to us in an instant. Our buoyancy was great and we did well on our air too. We signed up for two dives that day and had another friendly guy named Alexander, who was staying at the same hostel, join us.

Our first dive was at a location called “The Pit” and was our deepest dive that day. The Pit was cool because the entrance was sunken into the ground by about 25-30 feet. There was a wood stairway leading down to the water where we could jump in, or you could stand at the top where the hole began and take a leap of faith. All of us decided to get into the water with all of our gear the easy way down on the wooden platform, but we all took a leap off the top of the rocks into the water below with our wet suits on before we went diving. That was so much fun!

No underwater camera this time, but while we were diving we got to see a white sulfur cloud under the water that was easy to disappear into. There was also a lone creepy looking tree with these giant seeds hanging from it. The water was so still it felt like you were floating or flying through the air with the clouds below you and the creepy tree in the middle. Then the cavern opened up into the darker corners of the cave where the sun could barely reach. We swam around some stalactite and stalagmite formations after playing with the cloud for a bit and then came back up to the surface. The entire dive felt very eerie to me at first and I found myself getting a bit dizzy at times if I wasn’t paying attention to what was below or above me. Apparently cave diving can do that.

The next dive was a lot more fun and less creepy. It was called Dos Ojos and we entered at a horizontal cave opening instead of just a giant hole in the ground. This cave had safety lines running through to follow and would bring you around and under stalactite/stalagmite formations and then back up to some openings where you could surface and see more open cave formations before descending back into the water and navigating back toward the entrance. We surfaced in an area called “The Bat Cave” and saw the roof of the cave area littered with tiny insect bats and birds. The diving here was great and we were glad to be back underwater again. We can’t wait to get to Belize to do some more diving!

The following day we decided to go out to the city of Akumal and do some snorkeling with the sea turtles. Alexander joined us and we drove up north a bit and found the cove where we could snorkel. There were lots of people out there snorkeling, but there seemed to be plenty of turtles to go around. We spent a good couple hours there before heading back. The beach was gorgeous with palm trees for shade, white sands, and the clouds were stretched thinly in the sky just enough to alleviate the intense heat from the sun.

Our next journey out of Tulum was to the Tulum Ruins. These ruins were set up right along the Carribean’s pristine turquoise and blue waters and although the entire ruin site was fairly small, it was extraordinarily beautiful. The iguanas strutted around like they owned the place and they even allowed swimming on the beach where you could look up at the rocky shore and see ancient Mayan ruins towering over you.

The interior of the ruins wasn’t littered with souvenir peddlers, but the entrance was another story. There were bars, restaurants, souveniers, even people in full costume waiting to get a picture with you. It was fun and someone could probably spend an entire day there swimming, eating, and enjoying the ruins. We mostly just went for the ruins, but on the way out, we had to get a few fun photos with some of the people in costumes. And there was even a cute soft little monkey to hold! I think Steve made a new friend there.

We stayed in Tulum for a total of about 6 days during our final week in Mexico before finally meeting Steve’s Mom, Jody, in Hopkins Belize. Our first stop before Central America is the last major city near the border of Belize, Chetumal.  We stayed at the hilariously named “Ucum” Hotel, where we didn’t blow a huge load to stay there, but we definitely left satisfied.  Then it was onward to Belize!

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    Chichén-Itzá Ruins, Valladolid, and Cancun

    After spending a few days in Merida, we started heading east along the Yucatan Peninsula toward Cancun.  We wanted to break the trip up to see the infamous Chichén-Itzá ruins so we stopped in a small-ish town called Valladolid at a great little hostel called Hostel La Candalaria.  But before we got there, we stopped at the Chichén-Itzá ruins along the way.  According to the Internet, Chichén-Itzá is one of the top 10 must see ruins in Mexico so of course we had to stop and see them.

    When we arrived the parking lot was packed with cars and huge tour buses and we immediately knew that we were going to be sharing the site with many others.  When we got inside we were right.  We tried not to let it bother us too much, but having huge flocks of people everywhere and hundreds of souvenir peddlers all over the place really took away some of the magic and mystery of the ancient towering pyramids.  We did our best to tune it out and take in the beautiful sights regardless.  One of the most fascinating things about this particular site was how well preserved everything was.  There were tons of intact stone carvings, animal heads guarding the slanted inclines of the pyramids, and ancient pillars which once held up roofs for the long lost civilizations.  Lots of the over hanging stone decorations stood the test of time and remained mostly intact.

    The only other drawback to this particular site was the no climbing rule.  At nearly every other site we had visited so far we were able to at least climb one giant pyramid among other things, but Chichén-Itzá had rope and signs around every building.  We heard from some other travelers that too many women were falling off the big pyramid in the center so they set the entire site off limits.  Bummer.  It was probably all those women who decided to wear mini skirts and high heels to a Mayan ruin site.  What were they thinking?    Gotta look good for the ancient dead!

    There was also a deep cenote at Chichén-Itzá which was blocked off, but rightfully so.  The drop to the water itself was easily 50+ feet. No swimming allowed here!  Plus the Iguanas pretty much owned the place and had the cenote fairly well guarded.

    After visiting the Chichén-Itzá ruins in the morning, we started heading toward Valladolid to Hostel La Candelaria.  The hostel had some resident cats there who were fun to play with and a very nice courtyard area with plenty of shade.  It was a nice quick one night stop before we headed off to Cancun.

    The following morning we decided to check out some of the nearby swim-able cenotes to cool off before heading toward the expensive and touristy Cancun.  We were so glad we got to see these cenotes, they were absolutely AMAZING.  And we got to swim in them!!  The first was called Samula and it had these tree roots sinking down into the water below.  It looked like something straight out of a fantasy movie.  I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually seeing this place for myself.  While we were swimming in the water we could float on our backs and star up at the stalactite ceiling and see birds and bats flying all over.

    The second cenote called Xkeken was just as beautiful with its magical ray of sun shining thr0ugh its tiny opening in the ceiling.  Both cenotes had some lights installed on the walls that changed color which was pretty cool.  The water was so refreshing and clear.  Again, I could have sworn I was dreaming.

    After having our minds blown by nature, we headed off toward Cancun.  There isn’t a whole lot to say about Cancun except it reminded me a lot of Cabo San Lucas.  Lots of partying and drinking and beach front luxury hotels.  We only stayed for one night before heading off toward the ferry which would take us to the Isla Mujeres (The Island of Women!)  We had heard great things about the island and decided to spend one night out there at a famous hostel called Poc-Na Hostel. So first things first, we hopped on the local ferry that would take us to the island in 20 minutes.  We left our car at the ferry parking garage while we headed out.

    After we arrived we had a short and easy walk to the hostel which was right on the beach.  The only drawback was that the hostel didn’t really have a public kitchen and we had brought along a small lunch pail of food to cook our own meals.  Oh well.  We managed and made our meals cold.  The first thing we did was head out to the beach for some sun bathing and swimming.  The water here on the Caribbean was almost too warm!  We still had a lot of sun swimming in the crystal clear blue waters with the pristine white sand beaches.  We got some reading in, had a few beers, and took in the scenery.  Then afterwards we rented a golf cart for an hour and cruised around the island.  That was so much fun.

    Later that evening we hung out at the hostel bar and chatted with some fellow travelers before heading to bed for the night.  When we woke up we headed out to get some free breakfast from the kitchen, fruit and toast, and then packed our things before heading back to Cancun.  However, before we left we found out from a fellow roommate that our room had bed bugs!  Fortunately for Steve and I our beds weren’t that bad, but this other girl had to leave and sleep in another room because her bed was infested.  It was pretty gross, but luckily it wasn’t so bad.  While we were checking out we let the people who worked there about it.  Later we would find out that the problem got out of hand just after we left, so perfect timing on our part, all things considered.

    After returning to our car we started heading south towards Belize to stop in a town called Tulum for a while before making the border crossing.  Tulum, here we come!

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      Merida, Cenotes, and the Uxmal Ruins

      After enjoying a few days in the jungle of Palenque, we started heading north toward the city of Merida.  The distance between Palenque and Merida was vast so we decided to take a overnight stop in a town called Campeche.  On the way we were stopped at a military checkpoint and the police there had a laugh at our minimal Spanish.  While they were searching our car, one of them found our bag of lollipops and he grabbed a handful and started handing them out to his buddies there at the check point.  It was funny, that’s what they were there for anyway and he just decided to help himself!

      When we finally got to Campeche, which was right near the ocean, we checked into our small hostel and then took a walk around town for a little bit to get a bite to eat.  Then we took a walk along the beach boardwalk and saw the sunset.

      The next morning we woke up early and got back on the road toward Merida. This time we got stopped once more by a military checkpoint.  We had heard that there was a larger military presence in the Yucatan Peninsula so we expected to be stopped here and there.  This time they not only searched our car, they brought their drug sniffing dog into the mix to make sure we weren’t smuggling in giant bags of weed into the city.  Of course the dog didn’t find anything and the cops looked a little disappointed they didn’t bust some gringos red handed.

      When we got to Merida it took us a while to find our hostel, Nomadas Hostel, because the sign was tiny and it was just a small doorway into a lobby that was very hard to see from the street.  We circled the block a few times before we finally found it.  Once we got inside we were very relieved to see a beautiful hostel with an outdoor kitchen, pool, and hammocks. There were also free salsa lessons every night in front of a big mirror too! We had plans to do a lot of things around the Merida area so we decided to stay for a few nights to make sure we could see everything we wanted to see.

      The first night we just hung out since it was a bit late in the day and decided to try some authentic Yucatan cuisine at a local restaurant that got glowing reviews from the employees at the hostel for the local dishes they served.  There were some older Mayan women sitting near the windows hand making corn tortillas which we enjoyed with our dinner as well.  It was so amazingly good we ended up going back not once, but twice more while in Merida just to try other dishes!  Yeah, we splurged a bit here, but it was so good and we had never had any food like it anywhere else.  Definitely worth it.

      The following day we took the car out and went to see the Uxmal ruins.  This was supposedly one of the top 10 must see sites.  When we got there we were completely surprised by the inflated ticket price.  We had never paid more than anywhere between $35-$50 pesos for entry to a ruin site, but this one wanted nearly $60 pesos AND a $120 pesos tax.  It was lame, but we coughed up the money and went anyway because we were there and couldn’t walk away from a potentially amazing site with ruins.  It was worth it.

      Uxmal had some amazingly preserved ruins.  There were lots of well decorated facades and stone carvings we hadn’t seen at any other sites previously.  It also had it’s own architectural charm with more rectangular buildings with pillars and straight edged designs.  The classic square spiral motif was present here as well.  It was also very nice that it wasn’t very crowded and that there weren’t peddlers at every turn trying to sell you something for “almost free.”  Being there almost completely alone among the ancient architecture was very inspiring and magical.  Instead of crowds and souvenirs, there were tons of wild iguanas running around like they owned the place!

      As I mentioned before, we saw tons of iguanas everywhere of all different sizes. I also found some actual dung beetles in the grass!  I had only ever seen them on TV, but we saw one in real life!  Here he is on top of his most prized poo-session.

      After seeing Uxmal, we headed over to a cave system called Grutas de Loltún.  Apparently the Mayan retreated to these caves to hide from the Spanish during times of distress.  They would live in the caves and drink it’s small amounts of fresh water and cook their food inside.  Archeologists have also found that there were pre-Mayans who inhabbited the cave systems as well.  There are very few visual indications of this left in the cave, but we did see some hand print paintings on a cavern wall which were from these inhabitants.  Unfortunately, so many people have touched them over the years hardly anything remained of those paintings.

      The entrance to the cave was set in the jungle and it was required to have a guide take you through the cave.  There was a small handful of others in our group on the tour as well.  Unfortunately, the guide was very adamant about letting everyone know that a tip is mandatory and he wanted at least $700 pesos  for the 1 hour guide through the cave system.

      They wouldn’t let me bring my tripod inside to get better shots, but we didn’t let that get us down and still enjoyed the beauty the cave had in store for us.  There were also colored light systems set up inside to give it that ominous feel.

      It was quite spectacular and we are glad we got to see it.  There was also a large stalactite in the center of the cave that when you hit it in certain spots it made a loud bass tone.  There were two notes you could play on the stalactite and that is where the name of the cave came from.  It sounds like “Lol-tún” when you hit it, with the “tún” being an octave higher than the “Lol” sound.

      After Loltún, we headed back toward Merida but not before getting lost in one of the small towns we had to drive through to get there.  Getting lost can be frustrating with the lack of signs and street names, but we made it out and got back with plenty of time take a dip in the pool and lounge around in the hammocks before bed.

      The following day we decided to go swimming in one of the many cenotes the Yucatan Peninsula had to offer.  The particular cenote we went to was located right in the middle of some Mayan ruins called Dzibilchaltún and after paying the slightly inflated entry fee we were able to get some very refreshing swimming in.  The ruins were pretty dilapidated and the vegetation surrounding the site was mostly dry and dead which made the ruins themselves seem less impressive than some of the other sites we had seen, but this spot had a beautiful swimmable cenote with lily pads and crystal clear water.  It was pretty amazing to be swimming in some cool water right in the middle of some Mayan ruins.

      After all of that fun around Merida, we took one more off day to relax and do some writing and blogging before we finally headed off toward the town of Valladolid to see the famous Mayan ruins of Chichén-Itzá!

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        Into the Jungle Ruins of Palenque

        On our way into the Jungle!  We drove at a windy pace up over the mountains past Ocosingo and back down on the other side into the jungle area of Palenque.  Palenque was a small town with the typical Mexican amenities you find in towns off the main highways except this town had another road that lead straight into the jungle and the ruins of Palenque.  We read that in Palenque you sleep in the jungle and that’s exactly what we planned on doing.  We drove straight for it and hit a dead end of a road that only continued a little further to reach the ruins, but we took a left just at the end of the road into an area called El Panchan.

        El Panchan was nestled right in the middle of the jungle and it had places to sleep or camp and a restaurant which was touted as one of the best in town.  We stayed at one of the accommodations called Jungle Palace and rented a small cabaña which had a bridge that crossed over a small creek (I called it the mosquito breeding ground.) Our Cabaña sat right next to the creek and had simple amenities; a bed, a table, and a back porch area where we could set up chairs to sit and listen to the jungle.

        In the jungle you don’t have to worry so much about the sun beating down on your backs and making you hot, it was all about the humidity here and boy was it sweltering.  We couldn’t so much as sit and rest without being covered in sweat.  I’m sure if we stayed there long enough we would get used to it, but even the fan in our room wasn’t working well so the little relief we could have wasn’t there to help us keep cool.

        One of the first things we did was rest for a bit.  Steve’s stomach was bothering him, we seem to get small bouts of stomach issues here and there from the food we eat so we decided to take it easy and hang out on our porch and relax.  We had fun watching the little fish in the creek below and listening to the birds in the jungle.  Later that night we were able to hear some monkeys and also see some jungle fireflies soaring around the high branches, it was amazing.  And luckily our room was very well protected from bugs with mosquito netting so we would rest easy at night.

        The following day we woke up feeling much better and decided to get a light breakfast at the restaurant called Don Mucho’s which was conveniently situated right in the middle of the three jungle accommodation.  We had some fruit and toast and then decided to head off toward the ruins of Palenque!  We were told we could walk there from the entrance of El Panchan, which butted up right next to the entrance of the ruins, but the walk ended up being at least 3-4 km and it was very humid and hot.  We finally got there and entered the ruins on an opposite end where most people usually enter so it was nice to walk through the jungle paths with fewer tourists staggering about.

        The area of the ruins we saw first were tucked right into the jungle.  It looked like something straight out of Indiana Jones for real!  And the great part about Palenque was you could climb almost all of the ruin sites unlike some of the previous areas we had seen having being blocked off.

        As we continued we finally reached a large clearing where most of the giant pyramids stood.  We took lots of breaks walking around this ruin site as the heat and humidity just drained any energy we had.  We still managed to climb most of the pyramids and take in the ancient views.  We loved how this site was burried deep in the jungle.  Apparently what we saw was only about 3% of the entire city of Palanque.  The remaining 97% was all around throughout the jungle and hadn’t been excavated yet I believe mostly due to the destruction they would be causing to the ecosystems there if they did excavate.

        The ruins were a beautiful site and there were also lots of small rivers and creeks running throughout the jungle which looked so enticing with the heat surrounding us.  Curse those ropped off barriers to the water and the “No Pase” signs!!

        After visiting the ruins we started the grueling sweaty walk back to El Panchan.  We were hoping a truck might drive by and we could give the driver a few pesos to take us up the road in his truck bed.  A combi bus did drive by and we crammed in there with some other locals and they dropped us off right in front of El Panchan.  I don’t think I have ever enjoyed riding in a van with the windows open as much as I enjoyed it on that day.

        We got back to El Panchan and sat over in Don Mucho’s again to see if we could find a man named Gabriel whom our friend Jose back in San Cristobal mentioned we should talk to about jungle tours and such.  We asked the staff at the restaurant if they knew where he was and they called him over for us.  Gabriel was the most polite and interesting person.  He enjoyed talking to us and telling us about his tours that he offered.  We were excited to hear that he was taking a tour through the jungle in about an hour so we decided to tag along.

        The pictures I took in the jungle were with my camera phone and not my good camera.  I really wanted to experience the jungle without the burden of being a tourist so I left the bulky camera behind and took only the clothes on my back and a small satchel with some bug repellent and my phone for a few pictures here and there.

        Gabriel was a local and he grew up in the jungle  He had visited this particular area of the jungle countless times throughout his life and gave us a great tour of the area.  He was able to show us some various plants and told us some of the Mayan myths behind their names and existence.  We even found some edible plants and flowers which were very unique and fun to try.  He always walked through the jungle barefoot and invited any of us to try it as well.  He was very concientious of his surroundings always looking and listening to the jungle and would warn us of any fire ant paths or trees with spikes so we wouldn’t step on them or hurt ourselves.  I totally took my shoes off and wandered through the jungle with my bare feet.  It made me feel like a wild woman :)

        Just before entering the jungle, he brought us to his friend, a giant tree near the entrance, and asked us all to join him in asking the jungle for permission to enter.  He said the jungle understands any language and will listen to anyone who speaks to it.  He said he usually asked for permission to have the jungle keep him safe and show him all of the secrets she has to offer.  He believes the jungle is a living being and should be respected.  So we all knelt down and put our palm on the soil and spoke with the jungle asking for a safe journey throughout.

        Our first stop on the jungle tour was a swimming hole and OMG was it refreshing.  It was JUST what we needed in that humid climate.  The water was crisp and cool and just perfect.  Gabriel wandered off while us and three German folks who tagged along for the tour waded in the pool and stood under the waterfalls.  Then he returned with some special clay that he found which he kept in a wide leaf and gave to us to put on our skin.  He said it was good for mosquito bites as well.  He also showed us a secret hidden spot at the pool just under the waterfall where you could duck under some rocks and enter a small cave in the water.  There was plenty of room for about two people and head room to breath and there were stalactites hanging just above your head.  It was awesome!  We each got a chance to go in there and check it out.

        After swimming for a while we headed back into the jungle looking and listening for more plants and animals.  We saw lots of birds such as doves, motmots and even some tucans!  We later heard the screams of the monkeys which sounded like giant gorillas in the distance, but they were actually only tiny little things. I always wondered how those booming calls came from such tiny creatures.  We wandered through shallow pools, hopped rocks, climbed small hills and even climbed through caves!  We also found Mayan ruins that had not been excavated and that had been consumed by the jungle.  We found small pieces of ancient carved stone and holes which would lead to entrances to decrepit buildings.  THIS was the real Mayan jungle experience we were hoping for.

        The sun was finally starting to wane and we needed to head back as the entire area was “closed.”  The part of the jungle near the ruins we were in was apart of the Palenque ruins and was only open between the hours of 8-6.  So we wandered back following the knowledgeable Gabriel who knew every path and secret of the jungle and found the road again after many wonderful and playful hours in the jungle.  We started hoofing it back to El Panchan as most of the vehicles that could take us back were being blocked off.  We managed to reach the museum area (which we saw earlier in the day) and a taxi was nearby so the  Germans decided to pay up and take it back.  Steve, Gabriel, and I kept walking  and eventually ran into a truck which we hopped into the back of free of charge (Gabriel knew the people inside) and got ourselves a breezy ride back to El Panchan.  We thanked Gabriel and told him we would see him later that night at Don Mucho’s!

        So later we had some dinner at Don Mucho’s and a couple of beers and enjoyed some live music and watched the young and old couples dance to some Mayan/Mexican inspired music.  The restaurant was packed and everyone was having a blast.  It was fun to people watch.  We got to see Gabriel play the drums in the local band (he said he was filling in for another drummer.)  We were starting to get a little tired so we headed back to our cabaña to get some shut eye.

        We were planning on staying one more day and taking advantage of some of Gabriels other tours, but that morning it was my turn to have a bit of an upset stomach.  So we decided to pack our things and head out of the jungle onward toward the city of Campeche instead.  We saw Gabriel in the morning and said our goodbyes and told him on our way back through Palenque after we travel through Central America we would stop by and stay again.

        Despite the humidity and heat, Palenque was a beautiful place and the sights and sounds of the jungle were definitely something not to be missed.  It was a magical place that teemed with life and people peacefully living amonst it.  Everyone there was wonderful and gave us a real jungle experience.  Onward to Campeche!

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