Top 5 Reasons to Backpack Guatemala


Gorgeous Guatemala! Full of beautiful scenery and culture! Take a crazy chicken bus around the country or laze about in the breathtaking natural wonder of Semuc Champey. It’s all here in our top 5 reasons to backpack Guatemala!



Crazy Chicken Buses

No trip to Guatemala would be complete without a terrifying ride on one of Guatemala’s infamous chicken buses. Decked out in crazy custom paint jobs; fitted with blaring/crackling speakers; an assortment of Ben 10, Spiderman and bible quote stickers; packed to the rafters… and then a loco bus driver overtaking traffic around blind corners on a cliff side road. Despite their hazards they’re incredibly cheap and offer an authentic way to see Guatemala.


Cheap Spanish Schools

If you want to learn Spanish then Guatemala is the place to go. There are hundreds of options to choose from, whether you’re just starting out or si pueda hablar español perfectamente! Learn Spanish in the hustle and bustle of city life in Xela (Quetzaltenango) or Antigua, or settle for a quiet lakeside spot at Lago de Atitlan or Flores. Not only is Guatemala famous for its abundance of Spanish schools, but they’re also amongst some of the cheapest in all of Latin AmericaVamos!

Breathtaking Scenery

We fell in love with the lush rolling green hills and towering volcanoes of Guatemala. Everything is just so green! Of all the countrysides we visited, Guatemala stands out to us as purely amazing. If you find a minute to relax on the chicken buses, open your eyes look out the window to see what we mean.




Historical Mayan Culture

Everywhere you go in Guatemala you witness a country that is proud to hold onto its Mayan heritage. From the colorful attire of old folk and young, to the variety of different Mayan languages that change as you travel through the regions (all 21 of them). Although enduring a terrible series of events during the civil war, the local population are doing everything they can to make sure this once powerful empire doesn’t become another lost page within the history books.




The Amazing Semuc Champey

Hands down one of our favorite adventures along the journey. Apart from being extremely beautiful, it’s just a magical place to visit. It might get its fair share of tourism, but it doesn’t matter. Stunning limestone pools with refreshing turquoise water for swimming, exploring dark caves by candlelight and scenic hikes through the valley. Our tip, forget paying for a tour, they’ll rush you too much. Give yourself two days to do it properly and really soak in the atmosphere.




Been to Guatemala? What else can you add to the list?


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Everything You Need To Know About Choosing A Spanish School in San Pedro, Guatemala

Thinking about pushing pause on your Latin American adventure so you can kickstart your Spanish skills? Great idea. Learning the local language will not only make travel easier, but will also allow you to have a more authentic experience. And what better place to learn than San Pedro, Guatemala? Guatemala is an ideal country to learn Spanish because the accent is mild and locals speak relatively slow. San Pedro is a small town situated on the shore of Lake Atitlan. It’s a popular spot to take Spanish classes as there are plenty of schools to choose from and it’s known for being one of the cheapest places to do it. And on a warm, clear morning you can’t beat the view from your school’s palapa overlooking the entire lake. Convinced? Great. Now here’s everything you need to know.


Why Learn Spanish

Apart from enhancing your travel experience and connecting deeper with locals, Spanish is an incredibly useful language. Learning Spanish will not only help your travels in Guatemala, but in many other exciting and interesting travel locations all over the globe. With over 400 million native Spanish speaker worldwide, Spanish is the official language of 20 countries. From Mexico and Spain, to Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish can be utilized all over the world. This makes it second only to Chinese for being the most widely spoken language. Not only that, but Spanish is also one of the most studied language, behind English and French. There are almost 10 million people that speak Spanish as a second language, so no matter where you are in the world, you’re always bound to bump into another traveler or local who knows a bit of Spanish. We’ve even found that Spanish has been a great bridging language between travelers that don’t speak the same language, but know enough Spanish to converse. True story, we were once volunteering in Peru with two guys ( a South Korean and Slovakian) who spoke no English, but became friends and bonded over learning Spanish together. If that’s not a good enough reason to learn Spanish, I don’t know what is!

Don’t Book Ahead

Unless you’re on a strict schedule and are booking a spot at one of the most popular schools during the peak of high season, skip making a reservation. Some schools pressure you into handing over a non-refundable deposit, insisting they could be booked out. The problem with paying a deposit is that travel plans rarely stay on a schedule and you don’t want to lose money because your plans change. There are so many schools in San Pedro that you’ll always be able to find somewhere to study.



Do Your Research

Since there are plenty of Spanish schools in San Pedro, it can be a bit overwhelming to just rock up without having an idea of where you’re headed. There are signs all over the winding streets that point to different schools in different directions. Do some research beforehand and read reviews of each school. Every school will offer basic 1 on 1 classes, but some will have more social events planned like movie nights or hikes. The more well known schools tend to be a bit more expensive, so do your research to see if they’re worth it.


Pay a Week at  a Time

Once you’ve decided on your school of choice, pay per week. You never know what might happen to make you cancel your week. You may realize that the school isn’t for you, or you need to move to your next destination sooner than expected. Paying weeks ahead of time could mean forfeiting that money if your plans change. And don’t worry about the school ‘running out of room’, they’ll find a way to keep you on board.


Switch Teachers If You’re Not Comfortable

This is a big one. If you’re not satisfied or comfortable with your teacher for any reason, ask to change. If your teacher talks too much or too fast or even just has a funny accent that completely distracts you from learning, switch. You are paying the school from your tight backpacker budget and it’s up to you to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Don’t feel embarrassed; students ask to switch all the time. And don’t feel bad for your teacher, they’ll be able to find another student. Make your learning the priority.


Do a Homestay

My first time in San Pedro, I booked a homestay but chickened out at the last minute and ended up at a hostel. I was too scared to do it alone, but was resolute to try it out the second time around when I had Jules. I’ll admit our homestay wasn’t exactly the warm family welcome I was hoping for (we stayed at the school with the directors family which felt more like a boarding school than anything), but all of our other friends had amazing experiences. They were invited to experience aspects of local life that you wouldn’t have access to as a regular backpacker. They were taken to church, taught to sew, invited to cook with their families and really got a taste of traditional Mayan customs. Just like if you’re dissatisfied with your teacher, I recommend asking to change. There are many loving families who would welcome a traveler into their home.



Get Involved with the Local Community

San Pedro has an active backpacker community full of trivia Tuesdays and theme parties. But you can get all that at home. The best way to learn Spanish, and really get a sense for Guatemala, is to get involved with the locals. The easiest way to do this is by building a friendship with your homestay family. You can also find volunteer opportunities in town through most of the Spanish schools. I volunteered at a local kindergarten and enjoyed getting out of the backpacker side of town (also known as “Gringolandia”).

And when you get there, make sure to take advantage of the unbelievably cheap avocados to make one of our favorite traveling snacks!

For more information on schools, this article does a good job of comparing the different options. If you hop on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum you can also find many posts with first hand testimonies on different schools.

Buena suerte!

Have you studied Spanish in San Pedro? Leave us a comment detailing your experience so other travelers can check it out! Thanks for stopping by!


Semuc Champey: A Backpackers Delight!

Whenever I hear the odd traveller mention Semuc Champey I immediately get the urge to launch myself headfirst into their conversation and go into a massive story about how amazing it is. The picturesque landscape of lush Guatemalan highlands, the turquoise limestone swimming pools, the excitingly dangerous candlelit cave exploration. On more than one occasion I’ve cut into conversations of complete strangers, but usually my enthusiasm gets me past that initial ‘is he nuts’ stage.

At Semuc Champey there’s an incredible display of natural beauty. Allow me to paint the picture. A dense overgrowth of jungle spread out across two green mountains, separated through the middle by a flowing valley. A cascading river crashes through until it hits a dark cavernous drop. Suddenly the sound of the torrent disappears and the river along with it. On the surface a series of gentle, peaceful swimming pools laze about for the next 300ft and slowly trickle down, as the monstrous river surges secretly below. At the end it spills out with ferocity and re-enters the river, before calming down again and heading out into the distance.

On the other side of the river there’s an opening to the Kan’Ba caves. On this guided tour you’ll get to stumble around jagged rocks and deep pools of water for about an hour and a half, all under the guidance of a small candle. No helmet, no flash lights, no shoes, no problems. Get to the end, climb up a rock and jump off into a deep dark pool of water. Once you get out of the cave, look for a seat swing that hurls you out into the middle of the river.

Just about perfect, but at times it does get a little touristy. But so are a lot of other beautiful spots around the world, and after a while you’ll have to get over it. My advice to beat the crowds: skip the tour and do some self exploration. The entrance to Semuc Champey is 50Q ($6) and if you go without a tour you’ve got as much time as you want without a pushy guide shuffling you along to the next spot with the rest of the herd. When you’re ready, the caves are on the other side of the river and cost 65Q. You’ll receive a mandatory guide once you’ve paid at no extra cost. That’s 115Q instead of the tours that usually start at 180Q. You won’t get transport, but if you stay close to the site it’s a fantastic walk.

And for those wanting to beat the crowds, do it cheaper and with even more excitement. There’s a couple of extra things that can really make the trip interesting. But like all good adventures, they’ll take a little bit of creativity, and possibly a bit of rule breaking.

Travel Basics

Getting There

The difficulties of Guatemalan roads are that there aren’t too many decent ones. This means a lot of backtracking if you don’t plan out your route properly. If you’re headed up to Tikal, or coming from the north, you can stop off at Coban and find your way out to Lanquin. There you can navigate yourself to hostels with eager 4X4 drivers who work for different companies. If you have less time and a little more money, shuttles can be arranged from Antigua or Tikal for a little extra and a hell of a lot less hassle than you’d get on local buses.


Most places near Semuc Champey are in the middle of nowhere. Because of this they have restaurants, not kitchens, and charge a lot because they know people don’t have any other choices. Be smart and invest in some travel food. Powered milk and oats are a great breakfast. Bread rolls will last a few days and are made into simple sandwiches if you bring some tomato, onion and mustard. Dinners, well, if you’ve eaten that for breaky and lunch you probably deserve a decent meal, so treat yourself.

How was your experience at Semuc Champey? Leave us a comment below or find us on Facebook and Twitter!

Guatemala to El Salvador Bus (Updated 2021)

Updated in 2021! Recently we reached out to friends backpacking in El Salvador to confirm that this journey is still up to date and running. And it is! We always want to provide current information, so if you’re taking the trip please continue to leave comments if anything changes. Gracias!


Traveling to El Salvador? Looking for a Guatemala to El Salvador bus that’s cheap? Here’s the perfect solution! Find out how to do it for $10 instead of $30. Cheap, authentic and adventure all rolled into one, and at a third of the price.

When you start off chances are you’re departing from Lago Atitlan, because it’s amazing, a central location and everybody stops past it. You don’t want to pay $30 to take a shuttle, we don’t blame you, every dollar counts when you’re backpacking! If you wanna get to El Salvador on the cheap there’s no need to head back to Antigua to find a connection, or even brave Guatemala City for buses. Follow this easy step by step guide and you’ll be eating delicious El Salvadorian pupusas in no time. Also, if you need an El Salvador to Guatemala bus, just reverse the steps. It’s that easy.


Click on the photos to find more helpful El Salvador travel articles!



San Pedro, Lago Atitlan to Cocales

From San Pedro in Lago Atitlan it’s an early start. You”ll need to leave at 5am from up at the central Catholic church. It’s still dark when you get up there, but the market people are already starting to set up, so it’s safe to walk around. Grab a couple of things for the breakfast trip. 1Hr – 10Quetzales – $1.25


Cocales to Escuintla

In Cocales the bus drops you off at the change over intersection, so you won’t need to lug your bags around too far. Just make sure you tell the driver where you want to go. At the intersection there are also some cheap meals (15-20Q) on the side of the highway if you want a bit more of a breakfast. 2Hrs – 20Q – $2.50


Escuintla, Guatemala to the El Salvador Border (la frontera de El Salvador)

This bus will literally take you to the border of El Salvador. Esquintla isn’t the safest place, so don’t go wandering off. The transfer is really close, despite what the taxi drivers will tell you, so just ask a police officer or an elderly for some advice, they’re usually pretty trusting. 2Hrs – 40Q – $4.50


Walk to the El Salvador Border Crossing

Get off at the small border town, walk across and disregard the peddle tricycles that tell you it’s too far to walk. There’s something rustic and authentic about crossing a foreign border by foot, be sure to enjoy it.



Entry into El Salvador from Guatemala

This will be swift. You won’t get an entry stamp (sorry passport), and they’ll just let you in based on how many days you have left from your last C4 entry stamp. 30Mins – Free


Welcome to El Salvador!

First point of call, lunch. If it’s your first time in the country be sure to stop for some pupusas. They’re a national dish and absolutely delicious. Cheese, beans, meat or a combination of all stuffed into a ball of corn masa, flattened out and then fried on a hot plate. Served with a shredded cabbage side and hot sauce. At 35c a pop you can’t go wrong. Grab a few and kick back for half an hour. 30Mins – $1 for 3 (El Sal uses American dollars in case you’re not aware).



El Salvador Border to Sonsonate or Acajutla

Walk a few minutes past the border and you’ll hit a local chicken bus depot. Don’t hang out there for too long, as you always seem to find the dodgiest looking characters at the border. 90c will get you to Sonsonate. If you’re headed to La Libertad you can try and get a bus to Acajutla for around 70-80c, then find a connection. If you’re going to Sonsonate you can easily organise buses to Juaya, Santa Ana or San Salvador. 1 1/2hr – 90c


Sonsonate to Juayua

For us it was off to Juayua, just in time for their famous food festival that happens every weekend. This festival should not be missed if you’re in the area! Prepare to stuff your face full of delicious El Salvadorian food, which you don’t hear a lot about, but is really really good. 1Hr – 50c


Other Things to Do in El Salvador

The country is well known for the famous surf beaches, but El Salvador beaches are also top quality. Check out this El Tunco vs. El Cuco write up to see a couple of the best beaches in El Salvador on offer, or maybe just a beautiful photo gallery of the beaches, to help convince you more!

Other activities in El Salvador include the bustling capital San Salvador for the perfect combination of history, culture and relaxation, or taking a hike up Santa Ana, the highest and most active volcano in El Salvador to see the turquoise crater lake.

So there you have it. Skip the $30 shuttle to El Salvador and take a cheaper route and more exciting one. San Pedro will feel like a world away after 8 1/2 hours of travel (with waiting time it’s probably more like 10-11 hours) and you’ll spend less than $10. That means an extra $20 towards some hard earned beers!




Cheap Eats in San Pedro, Guatemala

Want to find some deliciously awesome cheap eats in San Pedro, Guatemala? Yes please! But when backpacking on a budget, unfortunately this dream doesn’t always become a reality. Meals consist of what’s cheap and easy to cook. Lots of starchy potatoes, pasta and rice. And of course in Central America, anything to do with corn. Corn tortillas, with boiled corn on top and maybe a side of fried corn… surely there has got to be another answer?

In San Pedro we found the perfect lunch that gets the belly full and will literally cost you under one dollar! Forget the touristy strip, aptly named Gringolandia, with its alluring tastes and high priced meals. Head up the road to the local market in the morning and pick up some fresh supplies. Today we’re going to make a tasty guacamole on fresh corn tortillas (OK so corn plays a small part).

Here’s the super simple shopping list:

Item Cost Total
2 avocados 1Q each 2Q
3 small tomatoes 2.5Q a pound 1Q
1 medium onions 3Q a pound 1Q
8 fresh corn tortillas 1Q for 4 2Q
Couple of limes Assorted prices 0.5Q
Bit of salt and pepper Haggle the spice lady 1Q

Total = 7.5Q or just under 1USD

What’s next?

All you need for the preparation is some clean water to wash the veggies, a knife and a small container/bowl. Give everything a decent wash; mash up the avocado into a bowl; add in diced tomato and onion; juice some lime; and add salt and pepper to taste. Take it down to the lake with a good book and your swimming trunks, and you’ve got a nice afternoon picnic ready to go.

And this meal isn’t just a cheap eat in San Pedro. We’ve used this all over Central America where tortillas and avocado are in an abundance. Remember, the more money you save on food, and longer you can travel!

Chichicastenango Market: Save Your Pennies For Another Spot

You’ve read about it in all the guide books, seen it advertised throughout the tourist offices and heard fellow travelers talk about it. But the Chichicastenango market isn’t all it’s hyped up to be. Apart from making you feel like a bigger tourist than a bus load of older Americans, it’s pricey, massively over rated and if you’re not passing through, can easily be missed. We can understand the draw to a spot like Chichi, but in our opinion there’s a lot better places out there to spend your valuable savings.

While traveling through Guatemala you’ll often come across markets selling an abundance of brightly colored and beautiful woven garments worn by the different groups of indigenous Mayan. Most tourists jump at the opportunity to buy a few memories of their travels, but when traveling on a budget it can often be difficult to shop for souvenirs. Room in your bag and your weekly beer allowance are factors that come to your mind straight away.

Looking for bargains becomes more than just a novelty, it becomes a necessity. In Guatemala you hold out because you’ve heard that Chichicastenago market is the best place to go on their famous Sunday market day, and what you’ll find could be completely different. Here’s what unfolded when we decided to head to Chichi to get our shop on…..

We arrive in Chichi from Xela on a gloomy Saturday afternoon and the ominous signs of a market are already beginning to show, as stalls work on setting up all over town. Men go through an all too familiar routine of constructing giant scaffolding stalls and covering them with protective plastic. Women delicately unfold garments and hang brilliantly patterned table clothes on the walls. Woven bookmarks, feather earrings and other small trinkets are carefully arranged around small wooden tables by busy hands. Smooth talking phrases in English, rehearsed to perfection, echo around us we made our way through the maze of vendors.

A small girl dressed in casual clothes greets us in the centre with a smile and a ‘welcome to Chichi’ in English. After our initial greeting we realize she doesn’t speak much English and the conversation switches to Spanish, where she has a lot more confidence in speaking. We make small talk and exchange names and stories before the hard sale comes on. After politely declining her sale she continues to follow us around the town for another 20mins asking for ‘un quetzal, un regalo‘ (one quetzal, one gift). She doesn’t take to our kind refuses and in the end we head to our hostel to shake her tail, as more people begin to join the cue looking for a hand out.

After catching our breath we decide to venture out again, only to be confronted by the same girl and more of her partners in crime. This is something that happened quite a lot to us in Chichi. People didn’t seem to take a polite ‘no’ for an answer, and instead persistently followed us around the town. Something tells me they have become pretty used to receiving the odd quetzal from fed up travelers and that usually their persistence pays off. Obviously they didn’t know us.

We walk around town for a while, but quickly realize Chichi isn’t a hub of activity. There’s an interesting cemetery to visit, with its collection of multicolored headstones and decorated graves, but otherwise it’s a pretty quiet town. As a result we head to bed early, and then rise early to beat the crowds. By the time we get to to the market in the morning it’s just after 8, yet already a circus of activity. More phrases in English, more stalls selling the same stuff and all at a much higher price than what you’d usually find around Guatemala. Within the first hour we’re already walking round in circles, tired of being hassled every time we stop to take a peek.

The idea of getting a few bargains has now well and truly been abandoned, and all we were thinking about is getting out. With a winding road up to Nebaj in the back of our minds we bid farewell to the hectic carnival atmosphere that Chichi has turned into and make a beeline for the exit. For us it was just too much of an intense concentration of vendors all trying way too hard to close a sale. Here is an classic example of where persistence doesn’t always pay off, as they hoped that after the 200th time that we would finally give in. If anything it just drove us further away from the place.

In our honest opinion, check the market out if you’re still really interested, but definitely save the shopping for the quieter spots. It’s a beautiful place, full of traditional Mayan culture, but so are many other towns in Guatemala. Many tourists that we’ve met share the same view, after hearing the same warning. You’ll find the exact same souvenirs in other markets throughout the country, so don’t worry about missing out on anything. And if you do go, be conscious of pickpockets, who are a lot more ballsy on Sunday.

Chichicantenango Market Basics

Where: Chichicastenango, Guatemala (north of Lago Atitlan)

Getting There: Chicken buses run from all directions, at all times and are easy to navigate. Most buses will pass through Los Encuentros before making a change up north to Chichi. Depending on where you’re coming from they’ll take between 2-4 hours and cost you a LOT less than organizing a tour to get out there. Tours are definitely not need.

Accommodation: Among the tourist hotels you can find some cheap accommodation for 30Q if you want to stay the night.

Like all articles you’re welcome to leave your comments or experiences at Chichicastenango market. Our writing is subjective and reflects not only our opinion, but also our personal experiences. If you loved Chichi drop us a comment below or find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Flat Broke in: Xela

Every backpacker knows what it’s like to be on a tight budget. Choosing public transportation over cushy first class, forgoing meals out for cooking beans in a dingy hostel kitchen, its all part of the fun, right? But being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to miss out on awesome activities. Jules and I are always on the look out for cheap or, even better, free things to do. Here’s some activities that won’t break the bank in Xela, Guatemala.

1) Xela Cemetary:

This activity is completely 100% free. Oh yeah! The cemetery is located not far from the center plaza and is a true mosaic of bright colors. Gravestones are painted in turquoise, orange and pastel pinks. Although the cemetery is open weeklong, the best day to go is Sunday when families gather to pay respect to their deceased relatives. It doesn’t take long to witness the stark contrast between the western view of death and how they celebrate it in Guatemala. Families bring picnics, including the deceased’s favorite foods, to enjoy for lunch. The ice cream man pushes his cart as children run over graves to catch him. The whole afternoon is spent kicking back, sharing food and chatting with the family.

2) San Francisco de Alto Market:

If you’re looking for handicrafts to take home as souvenirs, this is not the place. The San Francisco Market is, however, an amazing place to get a glimpse of how the locals shop. This market is not geared for tourists and likely you’ll be the only foreigner in sight. Compared to shopping at Chichicastenango, it’s refreshing to watch locals buying and selling their weekly items without trying to pressure you into a sale.  It’s the largest weekly market in all of Guatemala and carries everything from clothing to live animals. Yeah that’s right. If you do want to see the livestock section, be sure to get there early because the animals are packed up by 11am. If you’re up for an adventure, the market opens by candlelight around 4 am. San Francisco El Alto is only open on Fridays and sits high on top of a mountain. The winding chicken bus up to the market is 10Q and takes about an hour to get there. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the action of the market and the gorgeous views from the top.

 3) Zunil

This small town is the take-off point for transportation to hot springs, Fuentes Georginas. Although we’ve heard they’re beautiful, we couldn’t justify spending 100Q just for a soak. So we opted for the cheaper option to explore the small town of Zunil. The bus (only 4.75Q from Xela) drops you off at the church. From there, you have to ask around to find the location of the town’s main attraction- San Simon. Zunil is one of the few places that still worships this Saint. Also known as Maximon, San Simon is the saint of gambling and drinking and is said to bring wealth and success to those who worship him. The shrine is moved to a new house each year, so ask around in town for the location. We were sent on a wild goose chase up narrow winding streets until we finally asked someone who pointed to a dark house behind us. Entering the building we found only a sleepy guard who silently pointed upstairs. Cautiously, we made our way upstairs to find San Simon himself, in all his glory. The shrine is centered around a life-size mannequin, who sits coolly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a black hat and sunglasses covering his face. Dozens of candles line the floor, dimly lighting the small room. Offerings of bottles of alcohol and packs of cigarettes sit on a table next to Simon. A woman sitting in the corner rushes up to the mannequin intermittently to shake the ashes off the butt of his cigarette or light a new one. Entrance is only 5Q, but you’ll have to pay another 10Q to take photos.


Flower Vendors Guatemala: Las Flores de Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful country full of rich cultural traditions and vibrant colors. While we were backpacking in Guatemala we were constantly amazed by the beautiful decorations, dress and flowers that were in every little town we passed. From small street markets in bustling cities, to tiny little village in the mountains. Everywhere we went in Guatemala we were amazed by the splashes of color in the streets.

Not only amazed by the colorful people, but also by the flowers. Here is a collection of photographs of flower vendors in Guatemala. The colorful flowers that line the markets here are just a small sample of the shades and hues that give vibrancy to this beautiful country.

Flower Vendors Guatemala






Travel Photography Reminder

As always, when taking photos of people while traveling, remember to exercise common courtesy and manners. Don’t be one of those tourists who sticks a camera in the face of a local and it thinks its ok. The indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala are particularly shy when it comes to having their photo taken. This is not to say all all, but we definitely encountered many experiences where timid locals would hide as soon as a came out of the bag. Ask first, snap later!

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