Casa Loma: a wooden hilltop hostel in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, overlooking the little town of Minca, the mountains, the coastal city of Santa Marta, and the Caribbean sea all at the same time. Sounds like a paradise, yeah?
So when I found an opportunity to volunteer here in exchange for a tent and meals, I was in. And let me just say it’s a good thing the other volunteers and I knew anything about cooking, because we were in charge of serving breakfast and dinner to 20+ guests each day… not to mention the little town has no supermarket and neither the stove nor the oven in our 4’x5′ kitchen were adjustable.
It was a challenge, but certainly an enjoyable one :)
Breakfast mostly consisted of lots of local coffee, fresh juice, homemade arepas and eggs — not too hard. We rotated roles as the dinner chef each night, merely given the rules that the ingredients can be bought in town and to include a vegetarian option. Although I love cook and I do it all the time, when put on the spot about what to prepare for 20 guests (using the very limited variety of ingredients available in town)… my mind went blank!
Luckily another volunteer, Angelina, and I got to team up for dinners. She’s planning to attend a culinary institute after her travels, so we shared knowledge and ideas and learned from each other. Our first dinner was a successful attempt at both vegetarian and beef chili, followed by a more brave attempt at chicken or veggie + queso tamales, which we wrapped in the leaves of a fallen banana tree. Unfortunately the tamales were taking longer than expected to steam, so we quickly improvised to make stuffed arepas with the same tamale dough, sautéing them on the stove. And what do you know, Kim (one of Casa Loma’s new owners) praised it as her “favorite dinner prepared by volunteers.” Even better – we tasted the actual tamales for lunch the next day, and they were perfect!
Cooking at Casa Loma was a lesson in using what you have, making it work, and feeling that much more satisfied when it does. There’s no strolling the aisles of the supermarket in Minca, deliberating on this brand or that, 2%, whole, nonfat or soy milk. When we needed baking powder for our cakes, we asked the friendly local baker if we could borrow some. The town’s cheese and honey man sits on the roadside with his daily stock — if he was absent, no cheese or honey. And everything that ends up in Casa Loma – whether it’s the day’s groceries or lumber to build a new cabana – goes up manually via the 10-minute straight hill of death. A hill that does not seem one bit easier on day 12 than it did on day 1.
The rest of the volunteer “work day” was spent changing beds, lounging around in hammocks, reading, and getting our workout of the day: buying groceries in town and lugging them up the merciless hill. Angelina and I also spent lots of time experimenting in the kitchen – making banana cakes, mocha frosting, and attempting paletas, a type of ice cream pop popular in Latin America.
On my one wonderful day off I enjoyed a revitalizing yoga class, wandered to local waterfalls, and hiked to a gorgeous old coffee finca, whose 120-year old machinery is completely powered by water pressure from the mountain streams.
I wouldn’t call working at Casa Loma “easy”, but life in Minca is certainly simpler. My time there brought me back to earth in regards to cooking as well. It’s easy in our society to get caught up in all these trends of gourmet and complex foods — i.e. things like truffle salt, cashew cream, maca powder, the newest ‘superfruit’ of the month — we forget the simple act we are performing: making food. Even without recipes, measurements, [anywhere close to] optimal appliances, and 95% of the things you’d find in a typical grocery store, at Casa Loma I ate some of the tastiest, most memorable vegetarian meals I’ve ever had. And being able to share this nourishment each day with other happy, appreciative travelers along with my fellow awesome volunteers made it that much more blissful.
It was a short lived career as a chef, but one I’ll never forget!!