The northeastern corner of Argentina, on the border of Brazil some 800 miles from Buenos Aires, is a hidden oasis with rivers, jungle, massive waterfalls, and, it so happens, the home of South America's most famous ingredient for tea, yerba mate (pronounced "mah-tay"). Known to locals as the Mate Trail, the region where the tea leaves are cultivated happens to be the perfect path for a long weekend that few tourists get to visit.
A trip along the mate trail will find you tracing the herb from its jungle origins with the indigenous Guaraní people to its mass production on large estancias in the fingerlike Misiones Province of Argentina's tropical northeast corridor. The four-day journey begins with a flight into Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport and a glimpse at one of South America's most iconic landmarks. It ends in a mate-drinking date with the cousin of Queen Maxima of the Netherlands. Here's how to make it happen.
Day 1: Iguazu Falls
Imagine Niagara Falls, three-times wider, and in the middle of a jungle with toucans, monkeys, and toothy caiman. This is Iguazu Falls, a wonder of the world so awing that even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt couldn't help but mourn "poor Niagara" at the sight of it. Iguazu boasts a staggering 275 cascades that parade across the border between Argentina and Brazil. The misty hills surrounding them were once home to the indigenous Guaraní people who harvested their beloved mate on both sides of the frontier. You'll need to return to the tourist town of Puerto Iguazu to find any mate trees today — but not before exploring Iguazu National Park's well-marked trails to San Martin Island or Devil's Throat where flocks of great dusky swift dart in and out of the mighty falls.
Where to stay: La Aldea de la Selva may look like little more than a wood-carved lodge at first glance, but this property on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazu boasts a network of walkways that fan out into a jungle dotted in cabins. With hammocks on every porch and a three-tiered pool tucked into the buzzing rainforest, there's ample opportunity to kick back with a cup of mate and commune with nature.
Day 2: Yriapu Reservation
Switch gears on day two by visiting the waterfall's original keepers at the Yriapu Reservation, an easy 15-minute walk from La Aldea. This 1,500-acre reserve, one of many in the area, is home to about 35 Guaraní families who live in basic thatched homes and speak of mate as if it's green gold. "Mate helps us to open up and talk to the spirits so we can receive inspiration from nature," says Cacique Roberto, the group's elected leader. The Guaraní use mate for everything from shamanistic rituals to community gatherings and believe the herb to carry a basket of health benefits such as boosting immunity and combating fatigue and hunger. You can purchase a silver mate straw (bombilla) and traditional gourd (calabaza) at the Yriapu's artisan shop to help support the community's nascent push into tourism.
Where to stay: Spend a second night in La Aldea de la Selva before continuing south to San Ignacio Miní early the next morning. Make sure to stop at one of the gas stations along the way where vending machines pump out hot water for passing motorists in need of their morning mate fix.
Day 3: San Ignacio Miní
Mate remained very much a secret weapon of the Guaraní until the mid-17th century when Jesuit missionaries encouraged the populations residing on their missions to domesticate the plant and cultivate it for mass production. Within a century, the concept of drinking the bitter herb had spread throughout Argentina to Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of both Brazil and Chile. You can learn about this fascinating time in Argentina's history at the World Heritage–listed San Ignacio Miní, the nation's best-preserved Jesuit mission. This redbrick township housed up to 4,700 Guaraní at its height, a time when mate became so important to this pocket of South America that it was used like currency.
Where to stay: Continue driving southeast from San Ignacio Miní toward the town of Obera. On its outskirts you'll find the mate farm-cum-country retreat known as La Chacra. With just six rooms located in and around a family home, it offers an intimate look at life in rural Argentina.
Day 4: La Chacra
You could hardly ask for a better place to learn about mate's role in modern-day Argentina than La Chacra, where Maria Inés Nosiglia — the cousin of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands — runs a family guesthouse on a sprawling mate plantation at the jungle's edge. "Whenever someone comes to my house I don't offer a coffee or water, I offer mate because it invites a dialogue," says Maria, who shows guests at La Chacra the ceremonial aspect of drinking the energetic leaves out of a communal gourd that's passed around. Her husband, Pepe, takes great pleasure in offering tours of the rolling plantation and its feverish secadero, which dries the mate leaves so they can age into a drinkable tea. Argentina produces some 350,000 tons of mate each year, and a sizable portion of it finds its way though this machine.
Where to stay: Spend a second night at La Chacra sipping mate and enjoying the Guaraní foods of chef Norma before setting off the next day for Libertador General Jose de San Martin Airport in the regional capital of Posadas, where you can return home via Buenos Aires. To simplify the entire journey you may want to enlist the help of Say Hueque, a local company that helps independent travelers plan custom trips to some of the more remote parts of northeast Argentina.