Las Marías, the World’s Largest Yerba Maté Producer

If you spend any time in Argentina, you will quickly notice a significant number of people carrying an unusual looking cup with a metal straw in one hand, and a thermos flask in the other – or under their arm, if they need a hand to do something else. They are drinking yerba maté (mah-tay), which was introduced to the Spanish colonisers by the Guaranís, via the Jesuits. And it’s a very social custom: normally people share the cup and straw with friends, family and work colleagues, and will even offer it to strangers.

Yerba Mate: the National Drink of Argentina. Photo shows some typical mate cups and metal straws, which have a flattened sieve at the base.

Yerba Mate: the National Drink of Argentina. Photo shows some typical mate cups and metal straws, which have a flattened sieve at the base.

The 'typical' mate drinker posture: a Thermos flask with hot water under the arm, a cup (with metal straw sticking out) in one hand. You wouldn't believe how many people become really skilled at doing most tasks single-handedly...

The ‘typical’ mate drinker posture: a Thermos flask with hot water under the arm, a cup (with metal straw sticking out) in one hand. You wouldn’t believe how many people become really skilled at doing most tasks single-handedly…

More by luck than design, we recently visited Las Marías, the world’s biggest producer of yerba maté, in Corrientes province of Argentina. We were on our way south towards Esteros del Iberá after visiting the Jesuit missions . There is no option but Ruta 14 and, just after a town with the rather ostentatious name of Gobernador Ingeniero Valentín Virasoro (although usually referred to as just Virasoro), Las Marías has an impressive entrance with a big welcoming sign. On impulse Juergen turned in to see what it was all about.

As we drove towards the security gate, I remembered that a woman at the tourist office in Posadas had told me about this place. Tourists are welcome, and can find out all about yerba maté. We were going in with that information, and no idea what to expect; maybe it was even some sort of theme park! The friendly guard took our details, gave us an entry paper and put a placard in our truck which identified us as visitors.

Capybaras in one of the many ponds on the Las Marias property.

Capybaras in one of the many ponds on the Las Marias property.

Driving up to the complex, we passed a lake with a lot of capybaras next to it. When we arrived, there was a young woman waiting for us. She directed us where to park Berta and then proceeded to welcome us to the place. Virginia is an English-speaking guide for the complex. Once she understood that we had no idea what to expect, she explained clearly what was available. After the visit I found their detailed website which explains everything about the place, and what you can expect from a visit there.

Virginia welcomes us and provides us with the first basic information about 'Las Marias'

Virginia welcomes us and provides us with the first basic information about ‘Las Marias’

Las Marías is a huge plantation of yerba maté and tea, where they grow, process, package and distribute only from this site. They now sell under 4 different brands, but their first was Taragüí, which is Corrientes in the Guaraní language.

You can find all the information you need on their website, but here are the things Virginia told us and showed us on our visit. Las Marías was created by Víctor Elías Navajas Centeno in 1924, when he inherited the property. It was a cattle ranch at that time and still raises cattle as one part of the business of Las Marías Group.

The property of Las Marías is 31000Ha with 7000 under yerba maté, 1000 under tea, and 5000 dedicated nature reserve. There are also cattle, and quite a large forestry industry.

A very small part of Las Marias's tea plantations.

A very small part of Las Marias’s tea plantations.

Compared with a tea plantation any mate plantation looks rather boring: only shrubs planted in lines.

Compared with a tea plantation any mate plantation looks rather boring: only shrubs planted in lines.

Research and development is an ongoing part of the production. Both maté and tea plants are propagated from seed or cutting, in a controlled environment for the first 2 months, then 7 months in the nursery, after which only the very best plants are planted by hand in the field. They also have an experienced team of tasters, who determine when the maté and tea is ready to make its way to the consumer.

Yerba maté is usually harvested all year, and usually by hand because the selection process begins there. An engineer at Las Marías developed the first machine to harvest maté (but it was built by an Australian manufacturer). The prototype from 1989 is on display in the grounds. The machine is only used in winter because, as Virginia told us, the weather is too uncomfortable for the workers. The maté harvested in this manner is then picked over by hand to control quality. While some of the maté is grown in other areas, to produce the variation that comes with different climate and soil types, once it is picked, it is trucked to Las Marías where is it chopped, aged, milled, processed, packaged and shipped.

After the maté is harvested it is roughly chopped, placed in huge sacks and aged in a controlled environment. It is aged for up to 18 months, the tasters deciding when it is ready. Then it’s milled and sorted into leaf, stem and powder. The final product is made up of a combination of these to get a distinct taste and the desired level of strength.

Tea is harvested by machine every 2 weeks, from October to March. It’s easy to identify tea plantations because the machine only takes the new tips, leaving a field of flat topped bushes. Las Marías produces black tea and green tea. That day I learnt that they come from the same plant, the difference being that black tea goes through a fermenting process after it is picked, which must be arrested to get green tea.

They also produce a variety of herbal teas, my personal favourite being peppermint. In Argentina it is actually the only brand of local peppermint tea there is; all others are imported and super expensive… The herbs are not grown at Las Marías, but are subject to strict quality control when they arrive for processing and packaging.

La Mayoria, the beautiful owners' residence at 'Las Marias' Mate plantation

La Mayoria, the beautiful owners’ residence at ‘Las Marias’ Mate plantation

Las Marías has been family oriented from the start. The complex is still managed by the adult children and grandchildren of Navajas Centeno and, like the patriarch, they are ‘hands-on’. The family home, a beautiful hacienda called La Mayoria, is right next to the processing plant. It is still used exclusively by the family, and is the emblem of the company. From the beginning the workers were housed, their children were educated and healthcare was provided, on the property. This is still the case for some of them.

It is said that once someone comes to work at Las Marías they don’t leave. There are 2000 employees, and around 200 of them, with their families, are housed in the village at the plant. This housing is reserved for those with particular needs, e.g. they don’t have a house of their own. They are then given the security of 2 years housing rent-free. The rest live in nearby Virasoro. There is also an area for the workers for lunch breaks, the comedor, with a very attractive outdoor area. And a medical centre is provided for workers and families, with 2 full time doctors. There was originally a school for the children of the workers at the site, but it is now several Kilometres away. Buses are provided to bring workers to the complex and the children to school.

On the tour, a nice addition to all of the above was a visit to the family cemetery to see the chapel. Virginia told us that it was designed by Jordi Fauli, the architect responsible for completing Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona. It is small, but very impressive.

At the end of the tour she prepared maté and shared it with us. It’s not really our taste, but we were very happy to have taken the time to find out more about this cultural tradition of not only Argentina, but Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. There are maté drinkers in many other countries in South America and around the world but, strangely enough, this it the only geographical area where the plant grows and thrives.

We left with the strong impression that this business has a conscience and a heart. It cares about the quality of its product and the well-being of its workers, and still manages to be a leader in its field. Other companies could certainly learn from Las Marías.

The name Las Marías – literally “The Marias” – comes from the fact that the founder’s mother, two sisters and wife were all called Maria.

From the Visit Las Marías website :

Today, Las Marías, is a unique blend of countryside, farm, industry and village in the lush subtropics of Argentina. It is a place of particular beauty and, without a doubt, the perfect place to learn, step by step, all the secrets of superior maté and Argentinian tea.

I think I agree!

The fee for the tour is paid to the Victoria Jean Navajas Foundation which was created by Navajas Centeno in the 60s, with a particular focus on education.

Recently we found these statistics:
Argentinian adults drink, on average, 100L of maté per year, 50L of soda/soft drink, 34L of beer, 30L of wine, and 18L of mineral water. The only thing they consume more of its tap water! November 30th has now become enshrined in law as the National Day of Maté in Argentina, and was celebrated for the first time this year (2015).


dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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24 Responses

  1. Virginia Paladino says:

    Hi!! I am Virginia, the Las Marias guide! I am very happy to see this website about your visit at my work. Thanks for remembering me and writing about your trip to Las Marias. I wait for your answer in my email and hope to keep in contact with you. See you soon!!

    • Juergen says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Virginia. Nice that you catch up with us. Please see our more in-depth reply on Facebook…

  2. I’ve never been to Las Marias or tried Yerba Mate. Is there a purpose for the metal straws? Or can it be drunk just like tea? And do they add sugar?

    • Yasha says:

      Great questions, Rachel! the metal straw has a small spoon shape at the bottom which acts as a sieve. The mate mixture is placed in the cup and a small amount of water poured on it at a time. Then the person draws the water up through the straw and the sieve keeps the herbs behind. Las Marias now sell Yerba Mate tea bags, but I would think that the traditionalists would pooh-pooh that idea! I also asked Virginia about the sugar – she told me that you can add sugar or honey to the herbs in the cup and sweeten the drink that way.There seem to be a lot of YouTube videos that can show you how it’s done. We find it and outstandingly interesting cultural tradition.

  3. I was in Buenos Aires for 6 weeks and couldn’t believe how much everyone was obsessed with mate. I used to joke that it’s like crack to them. I know other cultures like coffee a lot, but still! I tried different kinds of mate to give it a proper chance, but I didn’t care for it at all.

    • Yasha says:

      I’m with you! I’ve even tried Tereré in Paraguay where they drink matè with iced water – didn’t like that either. But there must be something in it that makes people keep on drinking it – some people all day.

  4. Mar says:

    Always wondered how this looked like in real life. I worked with Argentinians when I was a lifeguard on the beach and they were permanently sipping mate. Now I know how the herb looks

  5. Jenna says:

    What a fun place to happen upon! I always love to see how things are made and produced so this would be right up my alley. It’s so nice to see companies that are conscious and caring like this. And, the grounds look beautiful, too!

    • Yasha says:

      Las Marias was certainly a find for us. Fortunately, the way we travel, we almost always have time to stop and experience something like this.

  6. I just tried Mate! What a crazy coincidence! It’s now on my bucket list to try it again, but in Argentina.

    • Yasha says:

      That is a coincidence – I’m curious where you tried it if you are not in South America! Although, our guide at Las Marias told us that their product is shipped internationally…

  7. Kate says:

    There are so many different traditional drinks around the world and usually with customs that go with them. I hadn’t heard of yerba mate until now. I’d love to try it someday and this looks like a great place to find out how to drink it. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yasha says:

      I don’t personally like yerba matè, but it is very popular in these countries – moreso than tea or coffee. So it’s great to be able to learn about it and experience it in such a lovely environment as Las Marias.

  8. Toccara says:

    This reminds me of people drinking mineral water out of special porcelain cups in a town called Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. Until reading this, I had never heard of maté, but Argentina is on my list so I’ll definitely be checking it out when we make it down that way. I love the concept of Las Marias being so family-oriented; sounds like a lovely place to visit to see the gathering and production of maté.

    • Yasha says:

      Las Marias is definitely worth a visit, as is Argentina. We have spent many months here and still find something new, like this visit where we found out all about yerba maté.

  9. Charli says:

    I’ve seen so many travellers with their ornate yerba maté vessels and have heard all about the health benefits. I hope I make it to Argentina and experience this amazing tour for myself one day.

    • Yasha says:

      Yes, they really do go all out for the right paraphernalia. Yerba maté is really a very strong custom in Argentina – but every bit as strong in Uruguay, Paraguay and parts of Southern Brazil. Las Marias is definitely worth a visit when you come to Argentina.

  10. Carol Colborn says:

    I learn something new every day! Does mate have any resemblance to tea as a drink and as a plant? We will probably get to South America in 2020 yet but this is good to know. I am a tea lover so do you think I might like it?

    • Yasha says:

      As far as I understand it, maté is not a direct relative to tea, but it is related inasmuch as the people who drink it, drink a lot of it and drink it all day. A bit like tea or coffee for those of us who need a constant fix. It has a herby flavour, which for me is a bit too bitter. My advice, visit somewhere like Las Marias and get an expert to show you exactly how yerba maté should be consumed. Or, just make friends with some Argentinians, and they will offer it to you.

  11. Erica says:

    I wonder if I’d like maté. I would absolutely love to try it. Perhaps check out Las Marías as well. I like that it’s family oriented even if it’s become the world’s largest producers! That is one hard working family!

    • Yasha says:

      It had such a nice feel to it and our guide was genuinely happy to be working there. It’s nice to find a big business, like Las Marias, with heart these days.

  12. Alana says:

    Trying maté is on my list of things to try once we get to Argentina. I don’t have high hopes of enjoying it but just really want to know what it tastes like because it is so popular there. This tour might just be the way to do it. I love learning about the tradition and history of local delicacies.

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