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The Inca Trail. If I was able to peek into the mental bucket lists of travelers around the world, I think it’s safe to say that this world-renown trek would merit a high ranking spot on most of them. Four days hiking through brutal altitude and stunning panoramas towards an unmatched final destination: the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.

Of course, it ain’t no hidden gem. Access to this route is strictly controlled — only 500 permits per day are issued (including guides and porters) and only authorized companies can receive permits. Zoe and I paid upwards of $600USD for our trek with Llama Path and booked nearly four months ahead — in the middle of shoulder season. The Inca Trail is among the most expensive and it undoubtedly the most exclusive hiking route to Machu Picchu; other options like the Salkantay or the Lares treks allow travelers to book mere days in advance and pay a fraction of the price. But we were fixated on the classic Inca Trail, 27 miles of Inca-laid trails connecting hauntingly beautiful archaeological sites, breathtaking views, and heart-pounding mountain peaks.

Mule on the Inca Trail

Starting Point of the Inca Trail

I was both excited and nervous for this literal and figurative pinnacle of my trip to Peru. On one hand, I was concerned about my stamina and our decision to hike at the start of the rainy season. On the other, how could I not love it — it’s the Inca Trail!

We arrived in Cusco two days ahead of our departure in order to acclimatize, attend a pre-trek meeting, gather supplies, and otherwise prepare. On departure day, we walked through the twinkling lights of pre-dawn Cusco to meet our group at 4:30am for the bus ride to Km. 82 in Ollantaytambo, where we’d start hiking. We were quite the little army — fifteen trekkers, three guides, a chef, and twenty-two porters carrying everything from sleeping bags to kitchen equipment to tins of hot chocolate Milo for tempting us out of our tents each morning with.

After passing through a control station where our passports were checked against our permits, we received fresh stamps in our passports — a little bonus I was inexplicably thrilled by — and we were off.

Inca Trail Passport Stamp

Mules on the Inca Trail

As I hiked watch-less and mostly kept my phone off to preserve battery, I’m really not sure how long our exact hiking times were. When I refer to times or distances, those will be based on the averages on the trekking map Llama Path provided us with. The first day of the trek was challenging but rewarding and manageable as we were all coursing with energy and excitement. We started with a five hour push towards the Wayllabamba campsite where we’d break for our first lunch. It was uphill the entire way, but the ascent was gentle — we started at 8,923 feet and stopped at 9,842. I was surprised to pass many villagers and domestic animals along this stretch — it was the only day of the trek where we’d pass populated areas, and many took advantage of the last chance to buy cold drinks, snacks, and supplies.

Rest Shelter on the Inca Trail

Snack Shack on the Inca Trail

Hut on the Inca Trail

Llama Path Porters on the Inca Trail

The highlight of the morning was passing the Inca site of Llactapata, an amoeba-shaped ceremonial site carved into a mountain valley. It was closely followed, however, by lunch — the first of many meals we’d have along the way that would simply blow us away in complexity and quality. The dining tent was extravagant compared to hunching over a plate of rice as I’d done when hiking Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, and I felt a pang of guilt thinking of the porters carrying everything from the stools to the tablecloths for four full days. However, the setup did allow for great table-side conversation with our fellow trekkers, and provided nice shelter from the light drizzle that followed us on and off throughout the day.

Inca Site on the Inca Trail

Inca Site on the Inca Trail

Llama Path Dining Tent on the Inca Trail

In the afternoon, as we pushed through a 1,000 foot ascent in two hours — causing me to really struggle for the first time on the trek during one very vertical stretch — we continued to hike as a group. Over the next four days the fifteen of us would separate into distinctive tribes based on our speeds, so it was nice to have one unified day together.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Scenes from Day One of the Inca Trail

A Mule on the Inca Trail

Flora and Fauna on the Inca Trail

As we arrived at the Ayapata campsite for the evening, I felt a tension of emotions in my gut. On one hand, I was thrilled — I had made it through the first day without retreating up into a ball of defeat and rolling myself down a cliff. Victory! On the other hand, day two — and the fancifully-named Dead Woman’s Pass — was looming large in my mind.

We fell asleep at around our second grade bedtimes — hey, we woke up at 4:00am, remember? — after eating another fantastic meal and putting on every layer of clothing we had packed in order to combat the frigid post-sunset cold. As I drifted to sleep, I thought about a conversation I’d had with our guide that morning. I asked how often altitude sickness caused hikers to call it quits. He replied that it was the most common cause for mid-trek turn backs, but it was followed closely by the second most common reason — what he called an unwell mind. “Some people, they do not know what it is like to struggle. They don’t know what their bodies can do and it causes their minds to panic.”

Day Two of the inca trail

Llama Path Porters

Day two started strong. I woke up well rested to nice weather, shockingly un-sore muscles, and a breakfast of pancakes with caramel flowers drizzled on top. I tried to keep those high spirits with me as we began our ascent. The dreaded six hour stretch ahead of us would take us across Dead Woman’s Pass, a peak reaching 13,779 feet. Within the first half hour of hiking, I stopped to take a photo and someone screaming “LLAMA!” in my direction. I looked up, smiling, and when I saw the panic on their face I turned around — a llama was indeed charging directly at me. It was amazing.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the group was feeling as chipper as I was. A few started succumbing to altitude sickness — in the end, seven out of the fifteen in our group would fall ill at some point, with severity reaching from mild to almost-couldn’t-continue. The group started to fragment, with the strongest hikers blazing to the front (Zoe leading the way!), the mildly-ill and the cardio-challenged (myself included) falling toward the back, and the severely altitude-affected bringing up the rear. It was on this morning that I formed a little squad with two British girls, Kate and Sarah and an Indian-American guy, Togi.

Day Two of the Inca Trail

Things turned ugly as the rain went from a light drizzle to an angry downpour and both Sarah and Togi had to stop every few steps to be sick. While I am so sorry they had to go through that, I know that selfishly it helped me get through this, the most challenging part of the Inca Trail. Kate and I wordlessly took on the role of group cheerleaders, calling out chants through the rain and providing water and coca-leaf candy to our patients. By focusing on keeping spirits high and turning on nurture-mode, I was able to mostly ignore my own struggles and discomfort. When we paused at the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass, the fog was so thick we could see only a few steps ahead, my fingers were going numb from the cold, and my heart and lungs were begging for mercy. Surprisingly, my muscles felt strong — I would have thought my legs would be crumpling beneath me.

Needless to say, I have no photos from the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass.

An Inca Ruin on the Inca Trail

Inca trail Campsite

Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

The descent back down to 11,700 feet was pretty ugly as well, and reaching our lunchtime campsite of Pacaymayu provided little respite as the rain was still pouring down — making that dining tent setup seem entirely less frivolous in the process. We were all soaked, half the table passed on lunch due to altitude sickness, and I cursed the fact that I didn’t have dry socks to change into.

And the day was not over. We still had another four hours to go, up and down yet another peak, this time to a mere 13,123 feet! As we set off again, I experienced my only symptom of altitude sickness — a splitting headache that almost knocked me sideways. That, combined with inertia after a long lunch break, made those first thirty minutes some of the most mentally challenging of the trek. To push through it I turned on my iPhone and used my precious battery reserves to turn on music, get in the zone, remotivate myself, and forge ahead solo.

As we reached the second peak, I knew my struggles were over — it’s different for everyone, but for me descents are pretty painless. I yanked out my earbuds and was almost giddy with happiness. From here on out, the Inca Trail would be nothing but fun.

Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

I felt the kind of exhausted satisfaction that comes from achieving something you weren’t entirely sure your body would be able to do. In fact, for all my struggles, never once did I think that horrible thought — I can’t do this. I knew all along that though it might be painful, I would get there. With all challenging ascents out of the way, it would be smooth sailing — at least for this uphill-hating hiker. We were well on our way to Machu Picchu.

Is the Inca Trail on your bucket list?

Note: I will do an entire post on logistics, costs, tips and practical information about the Inca Trail and Llama Path. Stay tuned! 

  • Celia
    November 18 2013

    This is SO amazing! Can’t wait for the next parts and the post about logistics and costs. We’re heading to South America in December, and this is probably the no. 1 on our bucket list – we definitely need the info!

    The trek looks amazing. And sounds harder than I’d thought it would be. I hope the views made up for all the struggling. Amazing pictures – can’t wait for more! 🙂

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Hm, well, maybe I should have added more of a disclaimer regarding my fitness level 🙂 I really don’t want to scare anyone off this hike! When I hit the gym, I dread and struggle through a 30 minute treadmill run, but thrive at and am proud of what I can do with the weight machines. So while my muscles felt relatively strong throughout the trail, the cardio was incredibly challenging for me.

      However, and I don’t want to speak for her too specifically so many she will chime in here, I believe that my travel buddy Zoe found the whole thing much easier than she expected — she was a rockstar! I heard a few people say that they found it to be a pretty moderate hike. So it will be totally different for everyone, and honestly considering the altitude factor, it may not be what you expect!

  • Carolyn
    November 18 2013

    Oh, Alex! The Inca Trail is absolutely high on my bucket list! I am so happy you get to experience this amazing trip! I can’t wait to read more. Sending love from western New York! xoxo, Carolyn

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Thank Carolyn! I’d love to see you doing yoga poses at Machu Picchu someday 🙂

  • Kathryn
    November 18 2013

    What a profound insight the guide had about the “unwell mind”: “Some people, they do not know what it is like to struggle. They don’t know what their bodies can do and it causes their minds to panic.”

    So proud of you for pushing your limits and at the same time being comfortable in the middle of the pack. Both indicate a “well mind.”

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      I would have been perfectly fine bringing up the rear, as long as I made it to the campsite by dark 🙂

  • dave staplin
    November 18 2013

    The pictures, your writing,all great! I’m thinking this is all just a prelude to your travel book.

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Wow, thank you Dave! That’s quite a compliment 🙂

  • Hogga
    November 18 2013

    the donkey looks sad

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      He probably just hated my hat…

  • Shaz
    November 18 2013

    Amazing! I’ll be heading down to South America in 2014 and the Inca Trail is a definite must for me.

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      That’s awesome Shaz! Don’t forget to make those reservations early 🙂

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    November 18 2013

    I’m just gonna put it out there – Zoe is a mega stylish hiker!! Go girl!

    I never did Machu Picchu, but we did hike Kuelap, Peru’s ‘other’ Machu Picchu and while it was worth the climb when we got there, I was certainly a happier camper on the way down.

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Ha, it’s funny you mention that. She happened to have a different color of socks for each day of the trail — it became A THING among our group, and was hysterical. And I’m with you — descending is my FAVORITE.

  • Sky
    November 18 2013

    This is definitely top on my bucket list but I think that I would probably have to do one of the alternative ways to get to Machu Picchu. I’m not sure if I could handle such a difficult hike.

    LOVE the pictures, as always!

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      One thing to remember is you can really go at your own pace. Sometimes there was over an hour in difference between the first person to arrive at camp and the last — there truly was no rush!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    November 18 2013

    The Inca trail has been on my bucket list ever since I read about it in National Geographic at high school (loooong time ago). I am finally going to do it next year and I can’t wait. Looking at your photos makes me wanna go even more. I am just a bit nervous about the altitude sickness as I am prone to getting it, but hopefully living in Cuzco for a while before doing the trek will help me acclimatise.

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      I definitely think that will help, and you’ll also have time to develop tips and tricks to help combat any symptoms you feel! Good luck Tammy!

  • Gaelyn
    November 19 2013

    Machu Picchu has been on my list for a very long time, but the Inca Trail should have been done decades ago when I still could. Attitude makes all the difference and I’m glad you didn’t doubt yourself. I’ll enjoy this hike thru your eyes.

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      Happy to share, Gaelyn 🙂

  • Samantha
    November 19 2013

    Such fantastic photos and a really interesting read. I’m doing the Inca Trail in April, so I can’t wait for the post on logistics, costs, etc. It’s hard to know where to start organising things, so will be great to get some advice from someone who’s been there, done that!

    On a side note – and because I didn’t get chance to take part in your reader survey – I just want to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog. So many successful travel bloggers seem to just take part in press trips and publish sponsored posts these days, it’s nice to find someone who still posts regularly, and travels on their own terms. Keep up the good work!

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      Thank you so much Samantha, I really appreciate that! I enjoy working with brands and destinations that I support, but I also love doing my own thing 🙂 I’m happy with the balance going on right now!

  • Sarah Somewhere
    November 19 2013

    I love this Alex! I love that you address the mental and physical challenges of a journey like this! The guide’s perspective – absolutely brilliant. I love what he said about the ‘unwell mind’ which is something I am very familiar with, particularly during times of physical pain and exertion! Go you!

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      Thanks Sarah! Yes I was fascinated that so many people turned back due to panic, and by the way he phrased it. Couldn’t stop thinking about that conversation!

  • Shaun
    November 19 2013

    It’s pretty insightful words from your guide. Indeed once someones mind starts going in that direction it can be hard to turn back while others can push and turn that energy in to determination.

    I’ve felt these ups and downs during a hike up Mt. Olympus

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      Funny enough I think hearing that made me a bit nervous… I wondered if I would start to panic as well! Ha. I’m glad I never doubted myself on this one, despite the struggles.

  • Emily
    November 19 2013

    We JUST booked the trek for April and I have been giddy with excitement but also nervous about my capability. Can’t wait for your logistics post on what you take versus leave behind and how well the clothing/gear you brought with you measured up!

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      I’ll definitely add a packing section Emily, thanks for the suggestion!

  • Jade
    November 19 2013

    Dead women’s pass is a killer! But you are so right, the feeling of accomplishment when you reach the top is amazing!
    I think what makes it such a special experience, and what you’ve put across in your post, is that it is tough! It is stunning but it’s not a walk in the park and that’s what makes getting to Machu Picchu so much more incredible!
    Your pictures are wonderful, I especially love the one of the porters.
    Can’t wait to read part two!

    • Alex
      November 20 2013

      Thanks Jade! I agree, I can’t even imagine walking into Machu Picchu off the bus now, having done it this way. The feeling of awe and accomplishment mixed together was incredible.

  • Melanie Fontaine
    November 20 2013

    You’re right, the Inca Trail is definitely on my travel bucket list! And throughout your writing here I was reminded of my own most challenging hiking experience to date at Trolltunga in Norway. That hike (23 kilometers up and down a mountain) is probably a joke compared to the Inca Trail, but there were mountains when I thought there was no way on earth that I would make it back in one piece! But in the end, I did it and it was such an exhilarating feeling to physically achieve something that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve. But ever since then, I can’t help, but think: If I can do this, I can do everything! 🙂

    Can’t wait to hear more about your adventures along the Inca Trail!


    • Alex
      November 20 2013

      That sounds pretty darn badass to me, Melanie! Congrats on making it up… and back!

  • Laura
    November 20 2013

    Thanks for going into so much gory detail! I didn’t realize so many people got so ill. I spent time in the high deserts of Bolivia and also suffered from headaches… pretty much for the whole time at altitude. I’m sure it will be tougher actually hiking and climbing mountains though!

    • Alex
      November 21 2013

      I was actually surprised how many in my group fell ill! I’d be curious to see if we were the anomaly or the rule…

  • tyrhone
    November 21 2013

    Great post. I was wondering what it would actually be like as I’m not sure if Sarah and I will do this or one of the other paths. I remember getting some hard core headaches at everest base camp. Thank god for painkillers.

    • Alex
      November 21 2013

      A lot of the alternative treks seemed really interesting as well. The Lares especially intrigued me… supposedly you hike from village to village and it is more of a cultural trek. Could be a good option!

  • Andi
    November 22 2013

    Incredible!!!!! What a journey! Love your hat!

    • Alex
      November 22 2013

      I am heartbroken to tell you that I left that hat at the bottom of the Colca Canyon two weeks later 🙁 Gutted!

  • Rebecca
    December 6 2013

    Awesome!! It’s definitely on my bucket list and I can’t wait to do it. I just did the Kokoda Track (eight days of solid walking through the jungle of Papua New Guinea) and we were the same each morning, waking up to discover that our muscles weren’t that sore. It’s amazing what our bodies can do!:-)

    • Alex
      December 7 2013

      Wow, that sounds like an amazing feat! I’ve got to be honest with you, I think four days is my camping limit 🙂

  • Sofie
    February 22 2014

    SO on my bucket list and happy to read that you don’t have to be über mega fit to do it:)

    • Alex
      February 24 2014

      Just über mega motivated 🙂

  • Avy
    May 19 2014

    Awesome! I’m also doing this hike with Llama path in 3 weeks. What sort of training did you do beforehand to prepare yourself?

    • Alex
      May 20 2014

      Hey Avy, honestly I didn’t do much. I work out fairly regularly (jogging, weight training, etc.) but actually had surgery a month before my departure so couldn’t do as much training as I’d hoped. I think being generally fit though will give you a huge boost up… best of luck to you, and hope that answers your question!

  • Lyn
    July 18 2014

    Hi! Great blog and very helpful. I’ll be in peru in a few weeks and will also be hiking the inca trail – so excited! Did you bring a point and shoot camera or your dslr? I want to bring my dslr but am afraid it may be too heavy. Thanks for your advice.

    • Alex
      July 18 2014

      I brought my dSLR, my GoPro, and my iPhone 🙂 I think as long as you have a good day pack (something to really invest in!) the weight won’t bother you. Good luck deciding!

  • Racheal Morgan
    July 19 2014

    It was interesting to read about how different and similar your own experience was to mine! Hiking the trail definietly gives you a true view of what you are callable, right? I’m sorry to hear so many in your group were sick. Mine started in La Paz, so we faced most of our altitude sickness early on. It definetly made it much more enjoyable for me, I’m sure!
    Whenever our porters passed us, we cheered them on. I liked that you noted their hard job from the beginning. Gives me a respect for you!

    • Alex
      July 20 2014

      Thanks Racheal. It was hard not to be amazed when they were sprinting by and I was struggling with a portion of the weight! And interesting note about coming from La Paz. I’m sure that did help!

  • Eva
    December 23 2014

    Hey Alex! Me and my boyfriend will do the inca trail on march 2015 but we are struggling on finding a nice reliable tour for it. Which tour did you trek with ??
    Thanks, great blog and I LOVE your hat 🙂

    • Alex
      December 26 2014

      Hey Eva, check out my other Inca Trail posts, I wrote a review of the company we hiked with, which was Llama Path. Loved them! 🙂

  • Alicia
    January 15 2015

    Hi! I’m planning a trip for end of June and actually looking for a post with logistics and all the good stuff. Did you ever get to write it?

    • Alex
      January 18 2015

      Hey Alicia, yup I did! Here it is 🙂

  • Kenzie
    April 24 2015

    Hi Alex! I know this post was a while ago, but I’ve been reading your stuff in preparation for my own trip to Peru. Can you speak a little more to the altitude sickness? Seems like most of your group experienced it. How immobilized were they? How long did it last for them? What helped them get over their altitude sickness? Seems like if there is a big chance of it I should be a little prepared just in case! Thanks for any info you can provide! I love your blog!

    • Alex
      April 25 2015

      Hey Kenzie! It really varied from person to person. Some in the group were fairly crippled by it — no one stopped, but a few were quite miserable for the first day or two. Almost everyone (except for one) felt fine by the fourth day. Really the best thing you can do is spend as long as possible in Cusco ahead of time acclimatizing. That, and coca leaf tea! 🙂 The guides also had some smelling salt type things they gave to those who had it worst but I don’t have a clue what it was. I’d grab some coca leaf candies, enjoy Cusco for a couple days, and hope for the best! Unfortunately there’s not much more you can do. But I promise… it is worth it!

  • Suan
    September 20 2015

    Hi Alex, thanks for sharing the blog. I’m a bit afraid of heights and if I see cliff edge with a drop, I feel a bit vertigo. I’m deciding whether the hike or train method is for me. Is the hike near cliff edges or single person breath walk? Do you think it was safe? Thank you.

    • Alex
      September 24 2015

      Hey Suan! I definitely felt very safe while hiking. That said, there are many cliffs with steep drops and parts where you feel very high up along the trail. From my memory (this was a while ago now, granted) there were no single-file walking areas necessary, though. Perhaps you should contact one of the tour operators and ask them which trail would best fit your needs. Best of luck deciding!

  • Margareth
    April 16 2016

    This post certainly got me motivated, excited and a little scared! Haha. I have to really mentally and physically prepare myself for this hike. was supposed to hike to Machu Picchu with my brother, but unfortunately, it got cancelled. Hopefully, I will be going next year. Fingers crossed! I’m so up for the challenge! #letsdothis

    • Alex
      April 27 2016

      You’re going to love it Margareth! Train train train ahead of time… it really will make your trip so much more enjoyable. That and spending as much time as possible in Cusco ahead of time to acclimatize. Good luck!

  • Jose
    May 10 2016

    The Inca Trail is so amazing, remenber this trail in the past was like roads for the coontries, when Incas were here.

    • Alex
      May 18 2016

      Yes, I really felt like I was hiking… on the heels of history! 🙂

  • Marco Kuang
    June 2 2016

    Hi Alex, I remember reading your bloq about Rinjani before I hiked it May 2016. Rinjani is so beautiful, I will go back there again. How is inca trail compared to Rinjani? Thx before

    • Alex
      June 10 2016

      Hey Marco! Well, I was SO much more prepared for the Inca Trail than for Rinjani it’s not even funny. So I’m not sure I could really make a fair comparison! The Inca Trail is certainly run much more professionally than Rinjani, which is kind of an organizational shitshow to be honest. And of course it is a full day shorter, which makes a difference. I guess they seemed similar in terms of difficulty rating though, overall? Sorry I can’t give a really clear answer 🙂

      • Marco Kuang
        June 10 2016

        hahaha, I like that “shitshow” that you mention, I step on it 2 times. Luckyly I prepared well enough for Rinjani, so I still able to enjoy the view with fresh body and even swim in the lake, even I a bit disturbed by the shitshow even, can not imagined if you’re all exhausted and have to watch the shitshow which is very well organized like you say. OK thanks for your answer anyway.

  • Damir
    June 22 2016

    Loving those pictures. people so often forget that there is more about Machu Picchu than just the classic panorama…
    Inca Trail can be so beautiful, as are the other ruins along it trek. Love the way you are documenting your emotions. Elation, pain, relief..the inca trail really brings out everything 🙂

    • Alex
      June 23 2016

      Thanks Damir! The ruins along the way I might have enjoyed more than Macchu Picchu itself! It really is about the journey and not just the destination in this case.

    September 5 2016

    Great, you’ve finished it Alex and most important you’ve enjoyed it. Altitude sickness is not a joke and can easily spoil the experience. Hats off for the porters, though!

    • Alex
      September 6 2016

      I’m very grateful that I managed to avoid almost all altitude effects. I was lucky! And yes, hats off to the porters for sure!

  • Antony Vargas
    September 23 2016

    Alex it is a nice blog LOOKS like you had one of the most complete experiences.
    I’m a Inka Trail Guide AND for all people who is planning to visit Machu Picchu make sure you Drink as much water you can 5 days before arrived cusco (help regulate easier you body to altitude )and try to eat healthy food ALSO some walks and running.

    best regards.

    • Alex
      September 24 2016

      All great tips for helping adjust to altitude! Thanks Antony!

  • Kawani b
    December 29 2016

    Your post has got me and my wife very excited to go in March to Peru with Alpaca Expeditions

    • Alex
      December 30 2016

      That’s great Kawani! Have a fun time!

  • Sandy
    May 3 2017

    It is most definitely on my bucket list I just need to pick a date so it is not left to the wistful someday that never happens. Great job to you and Zoe on the day one hiking, I know I could train to do be better prepared for that part but I am worried about the altitude sickness as I live at sea level.

    • Alex
      May 12 2017

      I definitely could have trained more. I wish I did! The more training you do, the more you’ll enjoy the big trip you paid so much for 🙂 As for altitude sickness, just spend as much time as possible in Cusco beforehand — that’s the biggest factor!

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