An Argentinian Love Affair with Yerba Mate

The communal yerba mate straw
The communal Yerba Mate straw

I’ve seen Yerba Mate in the grocery stores and remember reading Che Guevara’s biography which had frequent references to drinking it. But it wasn’t until I got to Argentina that I discovered what a love affair the people have for this drink. Healthline describes Yerba Mate as a “drink that has the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the joy of chocolate.”

The drink in a traditional cup
The drink is taken in a traditional cup – Photo by Fermin Rodriguez Penelas on Unsplash

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What is Yerba Mate??

It is the dried leaves and small stems of Ilex paraguarensis, a plant that needs a sub-tropical to tropical environment to thrive.

It can be found in places like northeastern Argentina, parts of Uruguay and in the Paraguay and Parana River basins – in case you wanted to know. And about 300,000 tons of the leaves are produced every year.

What’s the big deal?

Drinking Mate is a semi ceremonial affair. There are rules to be followed. The container you drink from is called a gourd.

You don’t have to go to Argentina to purchase a “gourd”. You can buy one right here.

The communal straw
The communal straw

If you’re in a group, the person that offers to make it and pour it, continues to pour until you’re finished. It is bad etiquette to jump in and pour.

You only need to say thank you after you’ve totally finished drinking and not after every turn.

Get over sharing the ‘metal straw’. If you’re germ phobic you’re not going to like sharing but that’s exactly what you have to do. Drinking together is a sign of friendship.

Finish drinking what’s in the cup (until you hear air) and then pass it back for a refill and onto the next person.

Continue in a circle until no more flavour can be extracted.

Our friend Ted is part of the Yerba Mate circle
Our friend Ted is part of the Mate circle

How do you make the drink?

Take a large quantity of ground-up leaf and add water – hot or cold. Then add hot water over and over again until there is no more flavour extracted. The metal straw that comes with each cup filters out the leafy material so you’re not ingesting leaf fragments.

What does it taste like?

I think Yerba Mate is an acquired taste. It’s like a very bitter tea though our second experience had sugar added to each cup. Some people add cocoa leaves too.

Why the special cup?

It beats me. It’s not like you can add much water either. I think I’m just showing my ignorance here.

Boiling water to make Yerba Mate
People never forget their thermos of boiling water so they can make it on a moment’s notice

Are there any health benefits?

Drinking it is supposedly very good for you. Our guide said that it was great for weight loss so I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on in North America. It’s full of vitamins and minerals and things like xanthines (compounds that act as stimulants), polyphenols (a group of antioxidants) and saponins that have anti-inflammatory along with cholesterol reduction properties. 

Drinking mate is supposed to:

  • boost your immune system
  • cleanse and detoxify the blood
  • retard ageing
  • stimulate the mind
  • allow you to keep your hair colour
  • fight fatigue
  • reduce insomnia

The more I read about it the more I wish I’d bought the cup. I will on my next trip to Argentina.

A hiking guide who offered us the Yerba Mate experience said the people of Uruguay are obsessive about their Mate and the same goes for the people in Buenos Aires. Another one of our guides walked everywhere with his giant thermos of hot water under his arm and the cup in the other – which I thought was a bit weird at first but now I understand.

Further reading about things to do in South America



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