A Mate-lover's Tour of Misiones, Argentina

Argentina's national drink yerba mate
Argentina's national drink yerba mate | © indigoMood / Flickr
Photo of Sorcha O'Higgins
29 March 2018

Mate is a famous Argentine drink that locals consume with as much ferocity as they do meat. A type of tea that is shared between friends and designed to quash hunger during the day, mate has an interesting history that centres around the Misiones province in northern Argentina. We take a look inside this province and check out what is on offer for lovers of mate.

Misiones, Argentina, land of mate | © Marissa Strniste / Flickr

Misiones in northern Argentina is probably most well known for being home to the famous Iguazu Falls, but many visitors might not realise that this is also where the local infusion “mate” comes from. This jungle province, and its western neighbour Corrientes province, are where the yerba mate bush is grown and harvested to produce the dried tea leaves that natives drink all day long. The drink is an infusion similar to tea, but prepared in somewhat of a reverse fashion, where the dry tea leaves are shaken into a gourd called a “mate”, then a metal straw called a bombilla is inserted into the leaves so it makes a small well at the side of the gourd, into which hot water is poured. The drink is extremely high in caffeine, and so it is often consumed in the morning and late afternoon. There is also a social ritual involved in the consumption of mate, where one person is responsible for preparing and serving the drink, and then it is passed around among a group of friends or colleagues. There are certain rules involved in drinking mate, like not touching the bombilla or stirring the tea, and only saying “Thank you” when you do not want to be included in the next round.

A shop selling different types of mate | © Pablo Nicolás Taibi Cicare / Flickr

Mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guarani people of northern Argentina in what is now Paraguay and the border regions of Argentina and Brazil. With Spanish colonisation in the late 16th century, mate spread around the southern tip of South America and it eventually became Paraguay’s main export due to its popularity in the rest of the region. Mate is the national drink of Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, and is consumed in huge quantities. Although Brazil is currently the biggest producer of yerba mate, Argentina produces about 37% of the world’s mate, and most of this is produced in Misiones. Mate also has strong links to gaucho culture, where Argentina’s cowboys would rely on mate to get them through long, hot days out on the pampa.

A man drinking mate in Argentina | © Emilio Küffer / Flickr

For lovers of mate and anyone interested in getting greater insight into how this bush is grown, harvested and how the tea is produced, head to Misiones and Corrientes to follow the Ruta de la Yerba Mate, or the Yerba Mate Route. Experience one of the most ancient Argentine customs, and marvel at the incredible beauty of this spectacular area. The Yerba Mate Route will take you to the sites of small industry where mate is cultivated, where you can learn about the entire complete production process, from the extensive plantations through to the harvest, drying, grinding and packaging of the product. On the Yerba Mate Route you can also indulge in herbal tastings of different varieties of mates – some with the original flavour of the bush and others that are flavoured with grapefruit or orange. You will also be shown a variety of ways of drinking mate – the traditional way with hot water, or the way you can drink it with cold juice in hot weather, which is called “terere”.