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Behind the Scenes of Crafting the Perfect Tour: How A Tour Operator Explored Andalucia

Crafting the perfect tour is an art form, balancing captivating destinations, engaging activities, and guests’ comfort. As the founder of Merakiva Travel and in preparation for launching our inaugural trip, I embarked on a scouting expedition to Andalucia, Spain, to fine-tune the tour itinerary. This blog is intended to share that story and give you a behind-the-scenes view of tour planning, offering insights to other would-be tour operators and showing potential guests all that goes into crafting an amazing itinerary for you.

The Tour Theme: Astronomy, Archaeology, and Andalucia

The core of Merakiva Travel’s mission is immersive storytelling. The company’s name, derived from the word “Meraki,” embodies our philosophy of approaching travel with wholehearted passion. By blending historical and archaeological elements into our trips, we create the canvas for setting up situations that bring together people from different walks of life to form new connections and make new friendships.

Because Merakiva Travel trips are all about storytelling, the destination trips are focused on a central theme for that story. In Andalucia, the tour revolves around humanity’s age-old connection to the stars. By intertwining astronomy, astrology, and archaeology, we can make the past feel less far away and build those moments of wonder that are key to the shared experience at the core of new friendships. A carefully crafted itinerary is a key piece of making that plan work.

The Initial Plan: Would the Itinerary Work?

To put together the trip, I needed that world-class itinerary. Leveraging my travel to Spain earlier that year, along with research tools like Google and ChatGPT, I pieced together an itinerary that promised to be both logistically sound and thematically coherent. Our journey was set to begin in Málaga, wind through Antequera and Granada, before reaching the sun-soaked shores of Almería. From there it’d go into the highlands, pass by Cartagena, Murcia, and then end in Valencia. Some highlights of this itinerary were:

  • Stargazing in Cabo de Gata Natural Park
  • Exploring the La Bastida archaeological site near Totana
  • A grand finale in Valencia eating paella along the beach

In order to validate this was a great itinerary I set out to Spain to research and test this plan. During this two-week period, I posted TikToks and Instagram Reels documenting the process. The wins. The failures. What I learned. What I’ll change for the tour.

The rest of the blog documents that trip, with the travel videos embedded to give you a visual idea of what the travel entailed. Each day’s plan confronted the reality of travel and gave me new insights that led to creating the final itinerary for the trip.

Whether you’re a potential Merakiva Travel guest, a fellow tour operator, or simply a curious traveler, I think you’ll find something interesting in this trip’s story.

The Research Trip

Jump to a specific day:

Day 1: Málaga

What I Planned to Do

Málaga was always intended as our starting point. While it might not make the top 5 Spanish cities list for most Americans, it’s a popular vacation destination for Europeans, offering frequent and affordable flights from across the continent and the British Isles.

With its abundance of hotels, vibrant old town, and world-class beaches, Málaga was the obvious choice to begin our journey. The initial plan included exploring the old town, taking a guided tour of the Alcazaba, and kicking off the first night with a sunset cruise followed by stargazing on the water.

For my scouting trip, I aimed to find interesting hotels, evaluate a potential Alcazaba guide, and test out a sunset cruise. To save money, I planned to stay at a familiar hotel rather than trying out new accommodations.

What I Actually Did


Day 1/9 (?) of scouting out and researching details for our upcoming tour to Spain: Andalusian Astrology and Astronomy. Follow, like, comment, to see future days and give your feedback! #entrepreneur #travel #travelblog #travelvlog #tourism #spain #espana #malaga #grouptrip #guidedtour #series #andalucia #criticism #feedback #vlog #smallbusiness #beach #sunsetcruise #romanempire #rome #roman

♬ original sound – Merakiva Travel

Upon arrival in Málaga, exhaustion led me to immediately check into my hostel. I then set out to wander the old city, immediately noticing major construction around the main square. My first stop was the Málaga Roman Theater and its adjacent archaeology museum. Both are free to visit, with the museum housing some intriguing artifacts. The theater, partially reconstructed, offers ample seating and boasts the impressive Alcazaba as its backdrop.

The main task for the day was evaluating the sunset cruise. Initially, I had considered chartering a small boat for our group, but as that wasn’t feasible for just myself, I opted for one of the large catamaran cruises. These ships can accommodate 100-200 passengers and include a complimentary drink. However, the experience was somewhat underwhelming. It was crowded, seating was scarce, and the trip lasted only about an hour. While the views of Málaga were impressive and the sunset beautiful, strong winds made it difficult to talk, sit comfortably, or stay warm.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. The sunset cruise might not be worth the extra cost or effort to charter a boat. The wind factor is a significant concern, potentially making the experience uncomfortable.
  2. The Roman Theater’s seating area offers a perfect spot for our group to sit and absorb the surroundings, away from the city’s hustle and bustle. The adjacent museum adds extra historical context.
  3. The construction in the old city served as a reminder that navigating Spanish cities with rolling luggage can be challenging. This insight will help in selecting a hotel closer to the old town’s outskirts for easier access.

Day 2: Málaga

What I Planned to Do

My second day’s agenda included investigating an Alcazaba Fortress tour and exploring a recommended sunset viewpoint. For the Alcazaba tour, I planned to ask the hostel staff for recommendations, hoping they might have good connections for quality guides.

I also wanted to walk from the old city to the beaches to assess the distance, difficulty, and quality of the beaches. It’s one thing to see the distance on a map and another thing to get the feeling of walking it.

What I Actually Did


Day 2 of planning a Multi-Day trip to Spain as a tour operator. Today we’re evaluating the Alcazaba in Málaga. How does it fit into our theme of Astrology and Astronomy? #travel #tourism #dayinthelife #behindthescenes #bts #entrepreneur #tourpreneur #tourguide #castle #alcazaba #malaga #moorish #sunset #sunsetviews #sunset_pics #steephill #spain #espana #andalucia #travelblogger #travelvlog #travelblogger #capcut

♬ original sound – Merakiva Travel

I started by walking from the hostel to the beaches southeast of the old town. The leisurely stroll along the harbor took about 45 minutes, though a more direct route would take around 30 minutes. The destination proved worthwhile, with the beach boasting several chiringuito restaurants along the coast and a pleasant boardwalk. The sand quality was surprisingly good for a city beach. Though I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, as that’s one of the main draws for tourists from across Europe.

Next, I took an Alcazaba tour recommended by the hostel staff. The tour company offered separate English and Spanish-speaking groups. Despite it being November, the Alcazaba was very crowded. The guide seemed disinterested, sticking to a preset script, while most of the group focused on taking photos. While the Alcazaba offers nice views of Málaga, the tour experience was disappointing. Plus, the Alcazaba was so crowded that it was hard to appreciate the surroundings.

Finally, I hiked up to a viewpoint on the hillside above the Alcazaba. The steep 300-foot climb led to a popular sunset-watching spot. Despite the challenging ascent, the view was breathtaking. As it was well-known to be a great spot for sunset watching, the communal atmosphere of people gathering watch made the experience particularly memorable.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. While the beach walk is enjoyable, it might not be a priority for our group given the other beaches we’ll visit during the trip.
  2. The Alcazaba tour didn’t meet expectations. We’ll need to carefully consider whether to include it in our itinerary, given the other Alcazabas we’ll encounter during the trip.
  3. The hilltop sunset view is a must-include experience. It offers a breathtaking vista and a sense of community that aligns perfectly with what we want our guests to experience in Málaga. We can offer a taxi option for those who might find the climb challenging.

Day 3: Antequera

What I Planned to Do

Excited to use my favorite mode of transport – trains! – I set out for Granada with a planned stop in Antequera. As a hub for trains connecting Málaga, Granada, and points north, Antequera seemed like a perfect midway point for a few hours’ exploration.

My main goal was to visit the famous Dolmen de Menga, one of Europe’s largest prehistoric burial sites. These dolmens – massive stone structures covered in soil – are thought to have connections to solar alignments, fitting perfectly with our tour’s theme. I also hoped to check out Antequera’s other attractions, like its Alcazaba, and find a good lunch spot for our future tour group.

What I Actually Did

Today highlighted the importance of research when planning an itinerary. My carefully laid plans quickly unraveled due to some overlooked details.


Day 3 of researching a Tour to Spain. Today, Antequera – a small old town, a UNESCO site. With ancient tombs and Moorish fortress. Spoiler: Things did not go as planned! #spain #espana #andalucia #antequera #alcazaba #tour #tourism #tourpreneur #entrepreneur #spanishtravels #trains #trainstation #travelfail #travelvlog #vlog #traveler #travelblog #tourguide #tourcompany #bts #behindthescenes

♬ original sound – Merakiva Travel

First, I discovered that the new high-speed rail station in Antequera is far from the town center – a fact not clear on Google Maps. This is largely because the train station is so new that Google Maps still directs you to the old station. After an unintended detour through someone’s lawn, I finally reached the actual town.

Then came the biggest setback: I had neglected to check the Dolmen de Menga’s opening days. Closed on Mondays – which, of course, was the day of my visit! Even my backup plan to view it from the outside was thwarted by the site’s distance from town and lack of pedestrian-friendly routes.

With nowhere to store my luggage (also closed on Mondays), I wandered the town looking for lunch. After a nice meal at a small cafe, I tackled the steep climb to Antequera’s Alcazaba. Despite some initial confusion about the entrance, I made it inside. The fortress, while basic, offered a stark contrast to Málaga’s more ornate version. Its sparse crowds allowed for exploration that felt almost archaeological in nature, evoking a sense of discovery around every corner.

Exhausted, I finally headed back to catch my train to Granada.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. Transportation logistics are crucial. Despite the nice trains, this stop wouldn’t work well as part of our rail journey due to the station’s location and luggage storage issues.
  2. Always double-check attraction opening days! This seems obvious but is vital when juggling multiple variables in itinerary planning.
  3. The value of discovery: The Alcazaba’s winding passageways and relative emptiness created an unexpectedly explorative atmosphere. Replicating this feeling of discovery, even at well-known sites, should be a priority for our tour.

Day 4: Granada

What I Planned to Do

Granada, home to the stunning Alhambra, is a must-visit on any Spanish tour. My plan centered around exploring this magnificent complex, including finding a suitable guide for our group (as access is tightly controlled). I also wanted to explore the Albaicín, Granada’s old medieval Islamic quarter, and check out the city’s famous viewpoints.


Day 4 of researching and planning a tour to Spain. In Granada for the day. Alhambra might be one of the most famous locations, but what about the rest of the city? #spain #espana #andalucia #granada #alcazaba #alhambra #islamic #islamicart #islamicarchitecture #tour #tourism #tourpreneur #entrepreneur #spanishtravels #travelvlog #vlog #traveler #visitgranada #bts #behindthescenes #dayinthelife #dayinthelifevlog #capcut

♬ 叮 – unknown

What I Actually Did

This wasn’t my only day in Granada; I’d spent a previous day wandering the Albaicín. Its winding, steep paths felt like stepping back in time, reminiscent of Middle Eastern cities I’d visited before.

Due to last-minute planning, I could only secure a “skip the line” private tour of the Alhambra for the late afternoon. I spent the morning exploring Granada’s churches, including the Cathedral and Basílica San Juan de Dios. While impressive, they weren’t particularly unique compared to other European churches. I also walked through residential areas beyond the tourist center to gauge walking distances and potential accommodation locations for our guests.

In the afternoon, I met my guide, Nacho, and joined a group of mostly older tourists for the Alhambra tour. Nacho’s approach was refreshingly narrative-driven rather than just listing dates and facts. The palaces were breathtaking, living up to their reputation as some of the world’s finest examples of Islamic architecture. Their deep connections to cosmology and attempts to recreate the cosmic world in physical space aligned perfectly with our tour’s theme. Even with 2-3 hours, there was far more to see, especially in the gardens. Importantly, I was able to talk with Nacho about working with us for the tour, as I had identified he would be a guide that fits well with the trip is hoping to offer.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. The Alhambra fully deserves its reputation and is a must-include on our itinerary. Its narrative flows well from the prehistoric sites of Antequera to these grand Islamic palaces. Finding an engaging guide like Nacho will be crucial for our group’s experience.
  2. Exploring the Albaicín and surrounding hills is a highlight in itself. We should aim to create a sense of discovery in these winding streets while ensuring nobody actually gets lost.
  3. While Granada’s churches are interesting, they might not appeal to everyone. Instead of a guided group tour, we should allow free time for individual exploration based on personal interests.

Day 5: In the Mountains of the Sierra Nevada and “The Desert” of Gorafe

What I Planned to Do

My plan for Day 5 was primarily focused on travel, with a few interesting stops along the way to Almería. I intended to rent a car in Granada and first visit Güéjar Sierra, a hip village nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, recommended by locals in Granada. From there, I planned to drive to Gorafe to see additional dolmens, before ending the day at my hotel in Almería. This route was designed to give me a taste of the diverse landscapes and historical sites in the region.


Day 5 of researching and planning a trip to Spain. And a top 5 stupidest travel day of my life. Glad my car made it out in one piece. (And don’t worry, the tour will have professional drivers!) #spain #espana #granada #travelfail #tourism #lost #travelvlog #lostindesert #desert #dayinthelife #bts #behindthescenes #vlog #tourguide #tourism #tourpreneur #drivingineurope #drivingfail #gorafe #guejarsierra #windyroads #mountainroads #fail #europe #cap_cut #capcut

♬ 1901 – Instrumental – Phoenix

What I Actually Did

Day 5 is where plans went significantly off-track.

The drive to Güéjar Sierra was beautiful but challenging, with winding mountain roads that were tricky for someone unfamiliar with driving in Spain. While the views were spectacular, the town itself was underwhelming. It had few restaurants and bars, and no notable tours or activities. Pretty, but not worth the trek from Granada.

The drive to Gorafe was much longer than anticipated, as Güéjar Sierra was in the opposite direction. En route, I passed Guadix, known for its cave dwellings. The landscape dramatically shifted from the green Sierra Nevada mountains to red-soiled, carved sandstone reminiscent of Mars.

Finding the Gorafe dolmens proved challenging. After a long paved road, I found myself on a dirt track with unclear signage. The dolmens, lining the cliff above the town, were disappointingly unimpressive – just a few rocks sticking out of the ground with small signs.

Continuing along the dirt road on the side of a cliff, I eventually reached a point where the only way to Gorafe was down a terrifying switchback on the canyon side. While I made it safely in my car, it would be impossible in a minibus.

Gorafe itself was fascinating – a small village in the narrow canyon with some houses partially built into caves. I departed at sunset, finally reaching Almería that night. Despite leaving Granada early, I only reached Almería hours after sunset.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. The Güéjar Sierra detour isn’t worth it. The Sierra Nevada, while beautiful, isn’t ideal for year-round visits due to potential weather issues and lack of activities.
  2. Visiting the Gorafe dolmens is logistically challenging and underwhelming compared to those in Antequera.
  3. However, the villages of Gorafe and Guadix, with their Martian-like landscapes and cave dwellings, could be worthwhile stops if the itinerary allows.

Day 6: Almería

What I Planned to Do

For Day 6, I had earmarked Almería as a relaxing beach stop contrasting our mountainous location. Known as one of Spain’s warmest towns, I thought it would offer a perfect opportunity for some downtime. My plan was to explore the town, enjoy a beach day, and possibly visit the Alcazaba. Additionally, for the future tour group, I had considered driving out to Cabo de Gata Natural Park for a stargazing experience, tying into our astronomy theme.

What I Actually Did

Despite being very sick (which you might notice in the video), I pushed through to fairly evaluate Almería. Unfortunately, the city fell short of my expectations.

My walk through town to the coast took far longer than anticipated because of traffic patterns that felt more American than the typically pedestrian friendly European roads. The small historic center is surrounded by large roads and a harbor, making beach access a lengthy process. Crossing six-lane roads isn’t the best vacation experience.

The beach, when I finally reached it, was nice but unremarkable compared to Málaga’s, and less conveniently located. The most interesting coastal feature was an old railroad ramp converted into a walking path, offering great water views despite being a dead end.

I visited the Alcazaba, my fourth on this trip. While overall it felt less characterful than others I’d seen, there were some interesting ongoing archaeological excavations. However when I was there, the excavations seemed to be on hold and there was not any interpretive material to explain it to visitors.

Overall, Almería felt nondescript. While not a bad city, it lacked the beach-town charm I had expected.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. Almería is not suitable as a beach destination for our tour. The city lacks the distinct charm or unique features that would justify its inclusion in our itinerary.
  2. When planning coastal stops, we need to prioritize cities with more accessible and notable beaches.
  3. It’s crucial to thoroughly research a destination’s actual offerings, rather than relying solely on its reputation or climate statistics.

Day 7: San José & Cabo de Gata

What I Planned to Do

Initially, San José wasn’t on my radar. The original itinerary had us spending the night in Almería and heading to Cabo de Gata for stargazing. However, upon arriving in Almería, I spoke with the stargazing guide who suggested meeting in San José instead. This made more sense logistically, considering my route to the next stop in Totana. So, I adjusted my plans to include a visit to San José.

What I Actually Did

An early morning departure from Almería led me to San José, and the drive through the mountains was nothing short of breathtaking. San José itself is a small town nestled between mountains and beaches. I met with Iñaki, our stargazing guide for Cabo de Gata, at an outdoor café. The sound of nearby waves provided a soothing backdrop to our discussion. After our meeting, I explored the town, walking to the main beach and past various restaurants before settling at a nice café for lunch. In just two hours, I found myself falling in love with this charming coastal town.

San José was everything I had hoped Almería would be.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. San José is a hidden gem that perfectly embodies the relaxing coastal experience we were seeking.
  2. Proximity to the beach (less than 100 feet from our chosen hotel) makes it ideal for leisurely exploration.
  3. San José is a better destination for us than Almería

Day 8: Totana & La Bastida

What I Planned to Do

The reason for going to Totana was to use it as a base for visiting the archaeological site of La Bastida. Totana is a small town, unlikely to show up in any tourist guides of Spain. The massive excavation of La Bastida is, however, quite the draw. The site is one of the largest settlements of the El Argar culture, a powerful prehistoric civilization on the Iberian Peninsula. Fascinatingly, while this culture dominated the region during the height they disappeared seemingly without a trace. 

As a coincidence, my planned day to visit La Bastida happened to align with a night-time stargazing tour at La Bastida, perfectly aligning with our tour’s theme. I had only intended to see the site but was pleased to get this additional stargazing experience. Additionally, part of the reason for going to Totana was to stay at Jardines de la Santa, a converted monastery, to evaluate its potential as a unique accommodation for our guests.

What I Actually Did

The early part of the day was dedicated to traveling from San Jose to Totana. Jardines de la Santa exceeded my expectations. The hotel, housed in an old monastery, is modernized yet modest. The rooms are well-equipped, and the atmosphere of the historic monastery is incredible. Additionally, there is still an active church in what used to be the monastery’s chapel. The surrounding landscape is a popular hiking destination for local Spainards.

As the sun began to set, I made my way to La Bastida. Despite its proximity nearby, Google Maps provided complicated directions, leading me down some unusual and confusing rural roads. The site is surrounded by fields and agricultural land, making it somewhat challenging to find. 

I had read that the tour was in Spanish, but I hadn’t fully grasped what that would mean with my limited Spanish skills. Combined with the lack of cell signal for Google Translate and the guide’s heavy Catalan accent, made the three-hour tour hard to understand (to say the least). Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed the tour, as I had done some prior research to understand the site’s significance.

The tour included a mile-long walk to the archaeological site, with stops to highlight city walls and reconstructions that helped visitors better understand the historical context. Once at the site, the quality of the restoration work was evident. The preservation and reconstruction of excavated objects in situ allowed visitors to grasp the importance of the findings, a rarity in such sites where interpretation is often left to sun-bleached plaques.

As the sun set, the staff set up chairs in a large basin, formerly the settlement’s water reservoir, now resembling an amphitheater. In the chilly nighttime air, another guide gave a talk on astrology and the site, though I couldn’t understand much of it. 

After returning to the hotel, I found the restaurant open, as is typical in Spain. The fixed-price menu was an excellent deal and surprisingly high quality. The next morning, after a hike along the nearby trails, I realized that this spot deserved more than a one-night stay and it would be a great opportunity to stay longer and allow an appreciation of this lesser-known part of Spain.

What I Learned for the Tour

  1. La Bastida’s world-class restoration justifies its inclusion as a ‘hero’ location for our archaeology-themed tour.
  2. The combination of archaeology and stargazing at La Bastida reinforces our tour’s astronomy theme
  3. Jardines de la Santa offers a unique stay experience that complements our tour’s historical theme.
  4. I should not be in charge of directions. I had already planned to have a driver but this emphasized that point! 

Day 9 and Beyond: Valencia

What happened after Totana? What happened to the original itinerary that spanned from Malaga all the way to Valencia?

To pull back the curtain a bit, an earlier version of our itinerary had us concluding in the city of Murcia. Upon further investigation, however, I discovered that the nearest airport was in Alicante, and the regional airport prices were much higher than those of Valencia or Málaga. So I revised the plan to end in Valencia to take advantage of the more affordable flights there. I knew this would entail a long drive but thought we could break up the trip to make it more manageable. This revised route skipped Murcia in favor of Cartagena to see its Roman ruins, and included a stop at the Canelobre Caves to split up the long journey.


Part 9/9 of Researching a Trip to Spain – The Epilogue While Catagena, Spain and the Canelobre Caves are interesting, the route on the tour involved far too much driving. By this point in the research trip I knew we would not be driving this much. So I never included it as the “end” of the trip. This should give some insight into what we aren’t including in the tour and why what does get included is so worthwhile! #travelentrepreneur #travelplanning #spain #explorespain #travelgram #archaeology #spain #dayinthelife #behindthescenes #vlog #travelvlog #spanish #tour #tourism #tourguide #entrepreneur #travelseries #cartagena #canelobrecaves #alicante #roman #romantheater

♬ original sound – Merakiva Travel

By the time I reached Totana, I realized that such a lengthy itinerary was impractical for the trip’s length. Instead, I decided to create a loop ending back in Málaga. Therefore, the remaining part of the research was more for my own confirmation than for incorporating it into our tour.

First, I headed to Cartagena to check out the city and its Roman ruins. I found navigating and parking in Cartagena extremely challenging. After some confusion and accidentally driving through pedestrian walkways, I finally managed to park and explore. While Cartagena is a lovely town, its Roman remains were less impressive than I had been led to believe. Moreover, the Roman Theater closed early in the day, so I could only view it through the entrance gates.

Originally, I had planned to drive from Cartagena to Valencia in one day—a drive that would take upwards of six hours. Realizing this was unrealistic, I decided to spend the night in a small town on the way. First, I wanted to visit the Canelobre Caves. After a long drive, I arrived at the caves just before sunset, which coincided with their closing time. The caves are located on the side of a large mountain, accessible only by winding, precarious roads. The caves themselves were impressive, but the extra distance didn’t justify the visit.

Finally, I reached Valencia. Valencia is a city that deserves its own dedicated post, and my visit confirmed that a trip starting in Málaga should not end in Valencia. Valencia is a large, cosmopolitan city where a longer stay allows you to truly appreciate its offerings. 

After reflecting on the entire scouting trip, it was obvious that the optimal tour route should form a loop beginning and ending in Malaga. This ensures a more cohesive and enjoyable experience for our guests, allowing us to fully explore and appreciate each destination without the stress of overly long travel days.

Final Takeaways

What did I learn, and how did it affect the final itinerary?

As I’ve discussed, the overall shape and length of the itinerary evolved to conclude back in Malaga. Shifting from a long one-way route ending in Valencia to a round-trip not only simplifies flights but also gives the journey a sense of closure by returning to the starting point.

I learned valuable details about which cities are worth visiting and which aren’t. For instance, skipping Almeria in favor of San José was a completely unexpected surprise and one that I’m sure all the trip guests will appreciate.

In specific cities, I identified the best places to stay, the attractions to prioritize, and the spots to avoid. Gaining this granular knowledge is the difference between a trip where you research online and one that is fully researched with on-the-ground investigation.

More than anything, this trip taught me the importance of pacing. It’s crucial to balance activities and downtime so that guests aren’t overwhelmed. No one wants to feel burnt out, but at the same time, we want to make the most of our time in Spain.

Together, these insights helped craft an itinerary that is not only unique but also offers a blend of experiences that promise to make this a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

If you’re still with me and interested, check out the trip page for the full itinerary details and book your spot today!

Upcoming Trips

An exploration of Spain’s historical sites, mountainous landscapes, and beaches,  with stargazing and other cultural activities.

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