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Cuba's must-sees

A selection of some of the best spots on the island.

Pinar del Rio and Vinales Cuba's tobacco lands
Pinar del Rio towards the western end of the island is classic post-card Cuban tobacco country, a land of rich red earth, limestone hills and waving fields of tobacco worked by the peasant campesino farmers. It is touristy, but well worth seeing. Most of Cuba's prime cigar tobacco is grown here and sent to five Havana factories to be rolled into the 65 million cigars exported each year.

The main town of Pinar del Rio is 186 kms from Havana about 4 hours by bus, 6 hours by train and just over 2 hours by car, mainly along the wide, empty auotpista motorway onto which you can connect just outside Havana. A cab will cost you around $120.

There are hotels in Pinar del Rio, but most people go to the small, farming town of Vinales 27 kms to the north. Vinales is little more than a road of one-storey whitewashed colonial houses and a horse or two. It lies on a fertile plain dotted with mogotes, large limestone hills formed when the softer surrounding earth was swept away.

There is plenty to do and see in the area. The riding and trekking are particularly good, especially if you can find a local campesino to take you into the hills rather than using the hotel-based tourist horses. Ask around in Vinales or the surrounding villages.

The main hotel is the Los Jazmines on a hillside 4 kms from Vinales. This is a good place to stay and the views are fantastic, though the food is basic. There is also a pool. Try to book: rates are around $30-50 The Hotel La Ermita is also a fair bet at similar prices, also with a pool. Again, try to book. Hotel Rancho San Vincente 7 kms north of Vinales has cabanas at similar prices. Again, book as these hotels get busy, especially during the high season.

There are one or two state restaurants in Vinales and plenty of paladars private eateries. There are also quite a few private houses and flats to rent try asking in the town or see Hotels & Private Accomodation. A good beach at Playa Jutias is within reasonably easy reach.

Sancti Spiritus old colonial Cuba
373 kms from Havana, around 7 hours by bus or 5 by car (about $160 by cab), or 10 hours by train, Sancti Spiritus is a lovely small town of 80,000 people right in the centre of Cuba. Founded in 1614, guava trees grow along the river banks and because Sancti Spiritus is not promoted as a tourist centre it remains relaxed and unhurried.

There is plenty to see, including a brick bridge built in 1815 and a church dating from 1680. The houses are in good nick by Cuban standards and Sancti Spiritus is a lovely place to stroll around.

There are three reasonable hotels just outside the centre the Hotel Deportivo, the Villa Rancho Hatuey and the Motel Laureles. The Motel is the cheapest at about $25pn, but they don't always take foreigners. The Villa Rancho is used by top Cuban officials and is overpriced at $40-70 a night. The cheaper Deportivi may be a better bet. In town the best option is the comfortable Hotel Plaza on Parque Serafin Sanchez. The old colonial building has had some typically tacky refurbishment, but mercifully the money seems to have run out before the place was wrecked. $20-45pn avoid the food which is awful and the restaurant filthy. Trinidad and Cienfuegos are within fairly easy striking distance.

Trinidad - old colonial Cuba with a beach
Trinidad is one of Cuba's oldest cities dating from 1514, built on a hill just back from the sea to avoid pirates. The steep streets are cobbled and many of the houses are painted deep blues, ochre, mustard and terracotta, more like the Brazilian coastal towns than other Cuban colonial towns.

Originally a backwater making a living from smuggling, the influx of French planters fleeing the Haitian slave rebellion changed the town. Sugar arrived. So did slaves, and money. The seven-storey Torre Ignaza which still stands at the top of the hill was used as a watchtower for town-dwelling plantation owners to oversee their slaves in the fields. But the land was overworked and reverted to scrub while the town suffered during the independence wars which devastated the sugar plantations. The focus of the trade moved west to Cienfuegos. The baroque church towers, Carrara marble floors, Spanish chandeliers and terracotta-tiled roofs of Trinidad's colonial centre reclined into a comfortable time-warp.

Like a faded dowager fallen on hard times, the city's remaining wealth is still on display, and not just in the architecture. Through the decorative ironwork protecting the large windows you can glimpse beautiful dark wood furniture and hand-painted Spanish tiles, even in many of the humbler dwellings. As elsewhere in Cuba, children play in the street. Young men work on Chevys and Oldsmobiles. Old men play chess and dominoes on their doorsteps. And dogs patrol their patches.

Trinidad is 462 kms from Havana - about 6 hours by bus or 4 hours by car a cab will cost you about $140 and there are no trains. Trinidad is a small town of 50,000 people and it doesn't take long to wander to the edge, at the top of a hill where the buildings amount to little more than shanties and where the faces are blacker.

There is plenty to see, including a 1731 church, a tobacco factory and the Plaza Mayor. The centre has been well restored with UNESCO help and is vehicle free, with plenty of Salsa and Son clubs.

The main hotel close to Trinidad is the Motel Las Cuevas which is fairly basic and charges around $30-50pn. Also just outside town is the Motel Rio Canas with $20 rooms. Motel La Ronda is smaller, newly-restored and with rooms from $20-30. You would probably be better staying at nearby Playa Ancon or up the coast towards Cienfuegos see Beach Cuba; and Small town Cuba later in this section for more on Cienfuegos. There are also plenty of private flats and houses to rent you'll get lots of offers in town for accommodation and paladars small private restaurants. The best paladar we tried was the Criollo close to the road into town from Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. Paladar Sol y Son Simon Bolivar (No 283) has also been recommended by one of our Scouts, but avoid their Mojitos apparently they mash the mint to a pulp There are also several state-run tourist restaurants which are patchy and over-priced.

Trinidad is far more touristy than Sancti Spirtitus, but well worth a visit, especially if you combine it with a beach or diving break at Playa Ancon or along the coast. There is also good riding and hiking in the nearby hills see Activities Cuba. Sancti Spritus and Cienfuegos are both reasonably close.

Santiago de Cuba Cuba's deep south
Santiago is Cuba's second city, the country's old colonial capital, a rival to Havana in literature, music and arts, the centre of the rum and brewing industries and the heart of the Cuban independence and revolutionary movements. At the far east of the island, it is a long haul from Havana and can be a busy, noisy town, but Santiago is well worth it if you have time. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and there is the added attraction of the stunning coastline to the east and the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains.

The distance from Havana 884 kms makes air travel a sensible option. Some Canadian and German charters come directly into Santiago and there are international flights to other Caribbean countries. Cubana, the Cuban airline, flies from Havana 2-5 times a day. The flight takes just over two hours and generally costs about $75 each way. Luckily Cubana tend to use some of their newer planes on the route. The bus from Havana takes 18 hours and the train anything up to 20 hours. By car the journey can be done in 14 hours at a push; a cab from Havana will cost you $300 plus.

The main hotel in old Santiago is the Casa Grande, right by Parque Cespedes. It's a fine old place, but has been tackily refurbished by the French company which manages it the old colonial rooms now look like they come from a '70s Birmingham three-star. But the hotel's cafe overlooking Parque Cespedes has atmosphere and the costs are not exorbitant at around $60-80pn. The rooftop bar-restaurant also has good views, but the food is mediocre. The killer for the Casa Grande is the noise: the hotel is right on one of the city's busiest intersections where every bus and truck driver has to hoot to prove their virility.

If you want to be close to the centre and don't mind impersonal blocks, you would be better off in the Hotel Santiago de Cuba, a theoretical five-star high-rise. Rooms are $70-120pn, though better deals can be had on packages and the food is reasonable; or the Hotel Las Americas, a low-built hotel close by, with a pool, for $30-60pn. Both are a 5-10 minute walk from the centre, but in a relatively quiet area. There are plenty of cheaper options and more than enough hustlers will offer you private rooms Santiago's casa particulars are generally good and some off the Parque have signs. Check them out and don't be afraid to say no. Expect to pay $15-20 pn.

A little further out and with the benefit of a good pool is the Motel San Juan on San Juan hill where the great battle of the Spanish-American war was fought. The rooms are in two storey blocks and set in a wood costs are $40-70pn. It's a good place to stay, but avoid the dirty restaurant in a separate building.

Also outside the centre are the Motel Rancho Club, the Hotel Deportivo and the Hotel Balcon del Caribe, all of which offer the basics for $20-50pn. Avoid eating in these places.

If you want to stay on the beach outside of Santiago see Beach Cuba for resorts and hotels to the east and Cuba's Mountain Coast for the rockier, but more spectacular coast to the west.

Apart from ambling round the old streets around the Parque Cespedes and the run down houses leading to the docks, there is plenty to see. The Moncada Barracks was the scene of an abortive attack by Castro in 1953. There is the Bacardi Rum factory close to the docks and a rum museum in the centre. The oldest house in Cuba, the Casa de Diego Velazquez is off the Parque Cespedes. The area north-east of the Plaza de Marte, just under a kilometre west of the Parque, is worth a visit very few tourists go there. It looks like a faded version of Beverly Hills, all fine mansions, follies and waving palms. This was the residential quarter of Santiago's rich. Now the mansions have been possessed by the state. Some house government bodies. Many are crumbling.

The main shopping road is the bustling Jose A Saco, two minutes from the Parque. Many of the shops and signs have not changed since the Revolution, the shops are even less well stocked than Havana, including the dollar stores, and queues are frequent. There is, however, a small fruit and veg market a couple of blocks west of the Parque.

There are plenty of bars and restaurants around the nearby Plaza de Dolores. All are state run, overpriced and quality is patchy. Better to try a paladar or eat at the Hotel Santiago de Cuba. Watch out for Santiago's aggressive hustling, especially of girls travelling alone. Of the state-run bar-restaurants, Don Antonio in Plaza Dolores and Santiago 1900 on Bartolome Maso are better than the pretty awful rest Don Antonio has particularly fine Mojitos; 1900 is better for food.

Santiago is also a centre of Salsa and the older Son music. Try the Casa de la Trova close to the Casa Granda or the Patio Los Dos Abuelos nearby. There are also plenty of discos and clubs. You will find good Cuban art in Santiago at far lower prices than Havana check out the small gallery just across the road from the Casa Grande.

The countryside around Santiago is lush and beautiful well worth a drive. There is a mountain hotel at El Salton, 75 kms west of the city. Villa El Salton is basic, but the spot is lovely. Rooms are $20-50. Good riding and natural pools for swimming.

Cuba's Mountain Coast
Drive out of Santiago to the west and within twenty minutes you will be cruising along empty roads where the Sierra Maestra mountains come down to the blue Caribbean. It is a stunning spot, great for beaching, hiking or riding. Because the shore is mostly rocky, it is very un-developed and very few visitors go there, except on packages to a couple of self-contained hotels.

The coast road goes west or about 100 kms before turning north along the coast of neighbouring Granma province. It ends in the swampy shores at Manzanillo.

The first town of any size is Chivorico, really a big village of 4,000 people. Close by is the Sierra Mar resort, a self-contained ghetto in its own grounds and geared to Canadian package holidaymakers. The hotel is both grim and good in the usual upper-end package resort way; prices are highish -$100-150pn. If you want to stay here you would be better off booking it as part of a package. Although the views from the hotel across the coast are stunning, its architecture is a monstrous intrusion for those looking in rather than out.

Close by is the only other significant hotel on the coast, the Los Galeones resort which is much smaller and about the same price as the Sierra Mar. Los Galeones is also geared to the Canadian package market. A cheaper option is the basic Motel Guama just to the east of Chivorico small and costing about $25-40pn.

A few kilometres on is the village of El Uvero where an early battle of the revolutionary war took place in 1957. 30 kms further on is La Plata, where the first small battle was fought. There is a quaint museum in a hut visited by very few people, but the curator makes up for that with her delight when someone does come along.

A good budget place to stay is the Base de Campismo La Mula, about 80 km from Santiago, close to Ocujal and a few kilometres before La Plata. You can rent a moderately comfortable cabana for around $5-10pn. The spot is lovely, in a small wood by a banana plantation on a lagoon next to a large empty beach sandier coves are a few kilometres to the east. La Mula is mostly used by Cubans, often students going hiking in the mountains. Foreigners are a rarity and you will be urged to join in evening sing-songs at the small bar and cafe where the food is surprisingly good (NB based on our last visit this is subject to change). There is usually room at La Mula, though you can try and book through the Oficina de Reservaciones de Campismo in the big cities, or ask at hotel/tour reservation desks in the main hotels.

La Mula is delightful, but remember it is basic and the manageress has a tendency to try and rip off tourists the correct rate is $5 a person; breakfast should not be more than $3; a main meal $6; beer or rum $1 and a bottle of rum $3-6. Also beware of mosquitoes and other biters, the power tends to go off during the day and the staff can be noisy early on. There are no real shops nearby, so bring what you need with you.

La Mula is a great base for riding or hiking in the Sierra Maestra mountains follow the La Mula river inland and there are good walks and beautiful rock pools. The Pico Turquino trailhead which goes to the top of Cuba's highest peak is 12km away.

Above all, the scenery on the coast is breathtaking and the campesinos in the villages, which have hardly changed for a century or more, are friendly.

Small-town Cuba
Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus are all, of course, small towns but they all do get their share of visitors, especially Trinidad. Here is our guide to several other fine old Cuban towns a little more off the track where you will see even fewer tourists, but still have reasonable accommodation.

Remedios Cuba's prettiest town
Founded in 1524, Remedios is one of Cuba's oldest towns despite having been rebuilt in the 17th century after a fire. It is a lovely, small colonial town not yet wrecked by tourism and is around an hour by car from Caya Coco and 45km from Santa Clara. Remedios is 4-5 hours from Havana by car about $150 for a cab. There are no trains or direct buses, but theoretically several buses to and from Santa Clara a day.

Another reason to come to Remedios is the Hotel Mascote on Parque Marti, a beautiful old building newly refurbished (sadly, and typically, not always in the finest taste acres of slippery white floor tiles etc) with 14 rooms for a very reasonable $30-50pn. The food is surprisingly good and the staff pleasant and motivated by Cuban standards.

Cienfuegos the quiet port
Graham Greene's Agent Wormold of described Cienfuegos as "one of the quietest ports in the world". It is also a lovely, relaxing place, typically Cuban with plenty to see, and very few tourists visit the port.

Wormold was visiting Cienfuegos in his clapped-out Hillman in his dual-role of vacuum-cleaner salesman and Her Majesty's secret agent. The city of 125,000 is on Cuba's south coast, about a third of the way along the island from the western tip. It is 253 kms from Havana around 5 hours by bus and 3-4 by car a cab will cost about $130. The train from Havana takes at least 7 hours.

Greene's Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, the year Castro's rebellion reached its peak. Cienfuegos played a typically Cuban part in the revolution. In September 1957, a year after Castro and Che had begun their ultimately successful rebellion, anti-Batista naval officers seized their base and the local police headquarters wrongly thinking that a national uprising had begun. The rebels then made the honourable mistake of staying in the town to protect civilians who had joined them rather than setting up a front in the neighbouring mountains. In the biggest action of the conflict so far, the Batista regime sent in tanks and B-26 bombers. Most of the rebels were killed. Many of the rest were buried alive after surrendering.

Castro was accused by other anti-Batista factions of giving the go-ahead for the revolt, knowing it would fail, to dispose of potential rivals for power. But Batista also suffered fallout. The Americans, under pressure from their press, complained that US-made weapons supplied for external defence had been used for internal repression. It was the beginning of an American rethink of their policy towards Batista which resulted in reduced US support for the Cuban dictator.

There are some low budget hotels in the city itself, but the main hotel, the Jagua, is a 10-storey block built in the 1950s by Batista's kid brother. It is on the edge of the city in a quiet spot has a swimming pool and has recently been refurbished by a French chain, so the food is good by Cuban standards. Costs are $45-$80 and you should book during peak season.

The Jagua looks out over a huge bay to a tree-clad island, deserted apart from the unmistakable bulge of a nuclear power station ministered to by stork like cranes. Work on the station was started in 1980, but stopped in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The facility is 75% complete and a Russian consortium is now studying completing it for about $1bn. Apart from being a nuclear disaster in the making and a former Soviet submarine base, Cienfuegos is the main processing port for Cuba's sugar crop. It lies, surrounded by drifting fields of cane, at the centre of Cuba's sugar growing region.

Cienfuegos also boasts some of Cuba's few natural blondes, the descendants of French planters fleeing slave rebellions in neighbouring Haiti in the late eighteenth century. Among the sights are an 1870 cathedral, a harbour fort, the governor's palace and Teatro Tomas Terry named after a Venuezuelan industrialist. Above all Cienfuegos is a relaxing place to spend a day or two strolling around. It is also reasonably close to Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus and there are great beaches along the coast to Trinidad see Beach Cuba.

Santa Clara resting place of Che
Santa Clara is a decent sized town in the centre of Cuba with a fine colonial square, some jolly nightlife and Che Guevara's mausoleum. The city was the scene of one of the final battles of the Revolution when Che attacked an armoured train sending reinforcements to Batista's troops.

Santa Clara is a good place to stay for a day or two and an excellent staging post on the way to Santiago the trip takes around 4 hours from Havana and 2 hours from Varadero by car - around $160 by cab to Havana and half that to Varadero. Buses take 5-6 hours around two a day; and the train takes around 8-10 hours several, mostly nightly.

The main hotel, the Santa Clara Libre on the central Parque Vidal, is diabolical. A tall '50s block and scene of the last stand of the local police against the revolutionaries, the front is still pock-marked with bullets. Things don't improve inside. The rooms have been subdivided and are tiny you have to be an Olympic gymnast to get onto the loo. Noise from the rooftop disco is deafening. Service is poor and the penthouse restaurant is grim only the flies seem to enjoy the food. This is one of the few major hotels where both Cubans and foreigners are allowed and what you get is Cuban standards at Western prices dollars from visitors go to the government rather than into improving the hotel. Costs are $30-50pn. Avoid like the plague the place is a byword for low standards even among the locals.

There are no other decent hotels in central Santa Clara, though the local spivs are adept at offering casa particulars they will often catch you on the way into town as you ask directions and cycle around manically taking you from place to place. This usually involves waking someone up to give you their room casa particulars are not very developed in this un-touristy town.

A far better bet is to stay in one of two pretty decent hotels on the outskirts. These are set in pleasant grounds, have pools and are a 5 minute drive or 15-20 minute walk from the centre. The best by far is the Motel Los Caneyes, 2km west of the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara. For some reason Los Caneyes gets a luke-warm write up in some guides, but its thatched bungalows are clean and pleasant, costing $30-50pn. The food is reasonable and the staff make an effort many are trainees from the local tourism college and they are way above what you will generally find in mid-range Cuban run hotels. The one downside is that Los Caneyes is often used as a stopover for tour groups on their way elsewhere, so you may need to book during peak season. Villa La Granjita a little further out is similar and there is also a decent Campismo just outside town called the Arco Iris with cabins and a pool for around $10pn.

Matanzas the Athens of Cuba
Close to Havana (98km) and Varadero (42km), Matanzas is an old town which flourished when sugar came to the region in the early 19th century, turning Matanzas into Cuba's second largest city. With wealth came fine buildings and a lively intellectual community, turning the city into the 'Athens of Cuba'. Matanzas later declined, but it is still a very fine town and benefits from an almost total lack of tourists. Matanzas has lovely squares, old theatres and galleries, forts, good clubs, OK hotels and a relaxed pace of life. There are regular buses to several cities and several unreliable trains a day. The electric Hershey Railway also goes to Havana several times a day and takes about four hours if you're lucky. By car Matanzas is a couple of hours from Havana - $60 by cab. Varadero is less than an hour away $40 by cab.

In town the best hotel is the Hotel El Louvre on Parque Libertad an elegant, if very faded building with a beautiful old courtyard and bar. The hotel is run-down, but atmospheric $15-30pn. It is also one of the few Cuban and foreigner hotels. The restaurant fronting the square is not too bad and the staff generally pleasant. Outside town there are a couple of Campismos, but the best bet is probably the Hotel Casa del Valle, a motel built around an old colonial house a few kilometres north of the town (head uphill and ask remember Cubans pronounce Vs as Bs). The Hershey railway also stops nearby. The Casa del Valle is a little under-maintained, but comfortable enough, it has a pool, the restaurant is reasonable by Cuban standards and the setting in the hills is beautiful, with lovely walks and hikes. $30-50pn.

Try the unpromising sounding Bar Karaoke to the west of the city to see Cuban youth strut its stuff. Only couples are allowed, so on Fridays and Saturdays they line up outside and you'll find foreigners are very welcome, especially if they pay the $3 entry fee for a couple. There is some Karaoke, but also plenty of excellent local bands, a good mix of music from rap to Salsa and great dancing as only Cubans can.

Camaguey hidden Colonial Cuba
Despite being Cuba's third largest city, Camaguey is far enough away from the main tourist spots to be largely unspoilt, though it is steadily being developed as a tourist destination so get there while you can.

Situated in the heart of Cuba, nearly 600km from Havana and around 400k from Santiago, there are daily flights to and from the capital and some weekly charters to Canada during peak season. There is also the usual selection of semi-reliable buses (c.14 hours to Havana), 2 trains a day to Havana and Santa Clara, a daily train to Santiago and intermittent services to other cities. A cab will cost $250 plus from Havana (c.10 hours) and around $150 to Santiago (c.7 hours).

Camaguey is a reasonably large colonial city with fine buildings, squares, churches, museums and palaces. Its also has plenty of decentish hotels and good clubs.

One of the best hotel bets is the Hotel Plaza, a mid-sized colonial building near the station. Some rooms suffer from traffic noise and there are reports of water problems, so make sure you ask for a quiet room at the back and check the water before you settle in. The restaurant is surprisingly good by Cuban hotel standards you get a pretty good breakfast and they seem to make a real effort at main meals, so it is worth a try. $25-40pn.

Hotel Colon on Republica nearby has recently been refurbished a, small very traditional neo-Baroque hotel with some lovely features, we have received good reports. Prices are around $30pn.

The Gran Hotel on Maceo, closer to the centre, is medium-sized and has recently been refurbished, thankfully without the usual job-lot of glossy white floor tiles. The place has some grand-hotel charm and good reports; it is also fine value at $25-40pn, but sadly it seems to have become the favoured resting place for tour groups, which detracts somewhat. Advisable to book in advance.

Outside town the main hotel is the Hotel Camaguey, a Soviet-style block with reasonable standard, some cabanas, a pool and most mod cons $35-60pn ask for a room well away from the disco. Avoid the Motel Maraguan which is the other favourite stopover for tour groups - many agents will try and book you in here.

Try the Hotel Camaguey's Disco Tradicuba, an open air club operating Thursdays to Sundays with a show and great dancing by the locals. Entry is free for hotel guests and dollar or two for everyone else as ever, you'll find a gaggle of the local lovelies more than eager to accompany you inside. Also fun is the Casa de la Trova on Parque Agramonte, one of the best traditional Salsa and Son clubs in Cuba closed Mondays.

Bayamo sleepy southern town
Un-touristy, relaxed, friendly, with Cuba's only street food, excellent casa particulars and an easy distance from Santiago, Bayamo is the archetypal sleepy southern Cuban town. There are a few flights a week from Havana, which is around 650k away and 14-15 hours by car a cab will set you back well over $200. Several buses run daily, including to Havana (around 18 hours) and Santiago 2-3 hours. Santiago is also around 2 hours by car - $50 by cab. Trains run every other day to Havana and Santiago and daily to Camaguey the trip to Havana is around 20 hours.

The Hotel Royalton on Parque Cespedes is the main pit-stop and you will sometimes find a small tour group in-situ. As ever, a fine old building has been nastily refurbished with stick on marble tiles etc the rooms are pokey and can be noisy and the food is poor, but it's OK value at $20-35pn. The Telegrafo on Saco is a little cheaper but may be open only for Cubans. The modern Hotel Sierra Maestra outside the city is poor and where most tour groups stop. Consider the Villa El Yarey at Dos Rios, 52km from Bayamo a nice hotel with mountain views and a good stop between Bayamo and Santiago.

However, the best bet in Bayamo is the casa particulars you can get a whole house for around $30pn or rooms for $10-15pn. A few have signs, or ask around in Parque Cespedes there are several on the road just west of Cespedes with lovely views over the river to the mountains. Don't be afraid to check out more than one.

Try the Casa de la Trova, close to Cespedes, for music. Bayamo is also the only place in Cuba with real street food it seems the local municipality has a more liberal attitude to street capitalism than most There's a whole street of stalls at night by the station on Saco and Linea, 10 blocks or so east of Cespedes. You'll find sucking pig and batidas, a Cuban smoothie made from tropical fruits, including Mamey, a local favourite which tastes like a cross between melon, mango and papaya we tried it and lived.

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