Virgin forests, friendly towns, fields of red earth and unfathomable waterfalls are some of the typical landscapes of northeastern Argentina, an area crisscrossed by freshwater aquifers that are ideal for harvesting yerba mate.
The symbiosis between this crop and the territory where it is cultivated is “unique”, as demonstrated by what is known as Yerba Mate Routewhich crosses the northern provinces of Misiones and Corrientes to propose a cultural, productive and gastronomic itinerary around the “green gold” par excellence.
“There is mate in 90% of the surface of Misiones and in the north of Corrientes; So next to each historical, cultural and productive attraction there is a yerbatero establishment ”, he asserted in a conversation with EFE Alejandro Gruber, president of the Yerba Mate Route Association (ARYM).
After the recognition of the Yerba Mate Route as main food and cultural route of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur)the entities linked to the FYROM are focused on achieving their next objective: the declaration of this route as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.
Consumed since time immemorial by the Guarani, yerba mate began to be cultivated at the beginning of the 17th century by the Jesuitswho created a whole marketing circuit around the yerba, with exports to Upper Peru, southern Brazil or Montevideo, among other places.
A legacy that can be observed, today, in the artisan, ecological and industrial establishments present on the Yerba Mate Route, “which is lived next to the Iguazú Falls, the Mocomá Falls, the Iberá Marshes or the Misiones Jesuit-Guarani from Loreto, San Ignacio or Santa Ana”.
“In the Jesuit missions, the tourist is going to live an experience that disarms you, that you cannot believe that simplicity, that wonder in the middle of the virgin mountain”, says Gruber about these proposals, which allow to know the whole process of elaboration of the yerba mate or enjoy this drink in the middle of nature.
“Imagine a walk, with a full moon, in the Iguazú National Park, and you see the Devil’s Throat with mate in hand. It is priceless to drink mate in those places with a completely starry sky”, points out the president of the FYROM, who insists on the multiple activities that coexist on this Route, such as walking through the plantations or spending the night in the old yerba farms.
In fact, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Yerba Mate Route year after year, according to Gruber, although the permanence is variable: Argentine tourists usually stay for a week on average, while foreigners tend to stay for a month.
Las Marías, a “must stop”
Within this Route, a “must stop” is the Las Marías establishment, a family business based in Corrientes that became the largest producer of yerba mate in Argentina, with nearly 60,000 tons processed each year in the middle of the subtropical jungle.
In 1924, its founder, Víctor Elías Navajas Centeno, successfully planted his first yerba plantation, the southernmost in the world, something that encouraged him to concentrate all his production in that same place, just the opposite of most companies, which completed the packaging process in Buenos Aires.
This avant-garde can be seen, currently, in the “segmentation” of its products, something that allows obtaining intense, soft or light herbs for its different brands, according to the Foreign Trade manager of the establishment, Nicolás Jovanovich.
“Six or seven years pass between when you plant yerba mate and its productive age begins, with which there has been a lot of work in managing the fields and in the genetic selection of the plants,” Jovanovich told EFE.
A variety of flavors appreciated by the more than 40,000 tourists a year who visit its facilities, guarded by more than 3,700 hectares of natural reserve for wildlife and another 10,000 of pastures.
According to the National Institute of Yerba Mate, Argentina produced 282,850 tons of yerba last year for the domestic market and another 35,500 tons for abroadwith seven brands present in Qatar for Argentines who attend the World Cup.
In this context, the FYROM president downplays the fact that several Argentine players consume Uruguayan mate during the tournament, recalling that Argentina is the “world’s largest producer of yerba.”
“Argentina supplies and means 50% of the world demand for yerbaso there’s nothing to worry about,” Gruber says of an industry of “green gold,” mate, which is in better shape than ever.