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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).