On a ramble through Argentina’s Misiones province, our contributor captures the region’s rugged terrain, the genial spirit of its people, and the alluring rituals surrounding its most revered homegrown beverage, maté. By Writer And Photographer Christopher Bagley
The French have their wine, the Belgians have their beer. For Italians, espresso serves as the de facto national drink—a kind of social superglue, prepared and shared according to precise rituals. In Argentina, it’s maté. And if you’ve spent any time in that country, you’ll know that it might be the world’s ultimate communal beverage. Made from the leaves and twigs of the native Ilex paraguariensis (yerba maté) plant and sipped from a hollow gourd passed around between small groups, maté is not just an infusion but a source of ceremonial kinship.
Consumed by all ages and social classes, it’s the subject of songs and poems; it has even been called the key to the nation’s soul. “Whenever someone arrives at your house,” wrote Argentine author and newspaper editor Hernán Casciari, “the first thing you say is ‘Hello.’ The second is, ‘How about some maté?’ ”
Visitors to Argentina, however, can find it difficult to partake of this national ritual. During my first trip to Buenos Aires 25 years ago, I saw plenty of people drinking maté on park benches—porteños often carry their own cups around—but I never managed to taste any myself. A handful of cafes now have it on their menus, but locals typically prepare it at home, steeping the crushed leaves and stems in their hot-water-filled gourds and sipping the infusion through a metal straw.
It was on a mid-hike break on a later trip, at a mountain hut in Patagonia, that I discovered the mood-boosting wonders of the gently caffeinated liquid, which tastes a bit like green tea mixed with roasted grass. All day long at the hut, chatty groups of Argentine hikers gathered in the kitchen or by the campfire. As they passed around their gourds, they invited me to join them. “¿Unos matés, Chris?” soon became my favourite Spanish sentence.
In January, I decided to return to Argentina for a deep dive into the culture of maté and the region where most of the world’s supply is grown. The heart of it all lies in the northeastern province of Misiones, where more than 10,000 independent farmers cultivate and harvest yerba maté. The area is a few hours’ drive south from Iguazú Falls, which is forever jammed with fly-in, fly-out travellers. The rest of Misiones remains little-visited, even by Argentines. It’s a languid region where copper-coloured dirt roads weave past hilly fields of yerba maté, some shaded by araucaria pines and thickets of bamboo. You won’t find much in the way of tourist infrastructure, or any stately estancias. But for the adventurous, a drive around Misiones is one of those side trips that turn out to be more enlightening than the main destination.
Heading south from Iguazú, my first stop was Santo Pipó (pipore.com.ar), which, along with Amanda (yerbamanda.com.ar), is one of a few large maté producers open to visitors. An exhibit with a short film explained that, for centuries, maté was consumed by the area’s indigenous Guaraní people for its medicinal benefits. After the Spanish Jesuits arrived in the late 16th century, they commercialised its production. The ruins of San Ignacio Miní, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed mission built by the Catholic order, are about 18 kilometres down the road from Santo Pipó. This spectacularly crumbling complex of orange sandstone, carved by Guaraní craftsmen, merits its own day trip from Iguazú. I spent the night farther south in the laid-back provincial capital, Posadas, where a bartender at one of the cafes on the bank of Río Paraná told me he meets roughly five US tourists per year.
The following morning, when I stopped at the neighbourhood bakery, where the counters were piled with cassava-based chipas and other regional pastries, I saw that the cashier was drinking a cup of tereré, which is the local answer to iced coffee—a cold, usually sweetened form of maté that’s especially popular in Misiones and in neighbouring Paraguay. I told her it was my first time in the region and I hadn’t yet tasted tereré. “Well, now’s your moment,” she said, offering me a sip of her grapefruit-juice-spiked version—a bit too sugary for my taste.
My next stop was the manicured Las Marías compound in the province of Corrientes, where several major maté brands, including the widely available Taragüi (taragui.com), are produced. Here, the leaves are harvested by hand, drily roasted, and aged in sacks for anywhere from several months to two years before they’re milled into the leaf-and powder mixture that forms the basis of the infusion. Las Marías, with its guided tours and gift shop, evokes the tourist-friendly wineries of Mendoza. The company buys much of its raw material from small family producers scattered around Misiones.
Near the town of Oberá, I visited the 42-acre plantation of Luis Napoleon Bielakowicz, a third-generation yerbatero who told me about the growing market for artisanal and organic maté brands. Despite Argentina’s economic woes, demand has been very high lately, and small producers have an edge when it comes to quality. “We know the plant because we grew up with it,” explained Bielakowicz, whose grandfather started the business after emigrating from Belarus.
If the outside world has yet to catch on to the appeal of Misiones, it’s definitely getting the message about maté. As more studies support the drink’s bona fides as a super beverage (maté has more than twice the antioxidant content of green tea), ready-to-drink versions have been turning up all over Europe and the US from brands like Guayakí. Mario Barbaro, the owner of the traditional maté label La Obereña, gives some credit to the drink’s top ambassadors, soccer legend Lionel Messi and Pope Francis: two Argentines often photographed with gourds in hand.
By the time I got back to the Iguazú airport, my coffee habit had turned into a maté habit. I love how time seems to pause when you share a round with friends—or total strangers, like the wisecracking farmer named Osvaldo who sold me some fruit from the back of his truck and then casually handed me the gourd he was sipping from, prompting a 10-minute chat about local mango varieties. (Since COVID-19 hit this spring, most Argentines have stuck to their own personal kits instead, but many believe
that the tradition will resume once the virus is tamed.) Over the course of my trip, I amassed so many packets of maté that I had to give most of them away to the guys at the car-rental counter. Though my suitcase was over the weight limit, I decided to bring three pounds of the stuff home. I’m drinking some right now.
Maté is the subject of songs and poems. It has even been called the key to the nation’s soul.
While there are five-star hotels near the falls, options elsewhere in Misiones are more simple. Your best bet: Hotel Urbano (doubles from INR 3,791; alvarezarguelles.com), a well-located boutique property in the centre of Posadas.