Red iron-bedded Earth and small green cities scattered with evidence of the rich jungle beyond. Town boundaries marked by rolling plantations of bustly yerba mate plants, tea, tobacco, citrus and sugar cane.
I have been sent on a mission to learn all about the core economic activity of the region and something that is dear to many Argentines hearts, the production of yerba mate. In particular, to meet with as many locals involved in initiatives to support local yerba mate farmers and produce fair trade organic yerba as are willing to offer me their time.
The first destination is the Provincial Capital of Misiones, Posadas. A small, dusty city, with a lovely walkway along the Paraná River. While allegedly the centre of activity in the region, it is a very quiet place to be on the 20th of June “the Day of the Flag,” just one of the whopping 18 public holidays this year.
The best thing for a visitor to do on a day like is to escape the city, so I hop on a local bus to San Ignacio Mini, a former Jesuit mission and UNESCO World Heritage Site. I arrive early evening, in time for the show “luces y sonidos” (lights and sounds), which is simply spectacular. As we walk through the ruins, the rich history of the mission is projected onto the crumbling bricks and impressive tree-trucks with colourful lights, while the voice of a Guaraní character draws with his words a picture of how it really was – accompanied by the sounds of chirping birds and battles.
Early in my trip, I am struck by the warmth and generosity of the locals, as a friendly couple, Natalia and Javier, overhear that I am staying an hour away in Posadas and offer to give me a lift back to my hostel in their car. We share mate, the locally produced yerba, Kraus, and converse about misioneros, mate, culture and politics.
The agricultural flavour of Posadas becomes evident the following morning from the steady rumble setting in at 5am, as local farmers be their day (quite the contrast from the night-orientated rhythm of Buenos Aires). My first meeting is, of course, scheduled for 8am in the morning with Milton Kraus from Kraus, a local family-run business producing organic fair-trade yerba mate. We share mate, stories and ideas and after two hours in their office, I am again impacted by the generosity of the people here.
It’s sunny, so I wander down to the Galería del Mate, a couple of blocks from the riverfront. It is marked by a giant mate gourd, and filled with yerba mate delights. I meet Javier Rojas, the brother of the owner, Lilian Rojas, who is more than happy to share is depth of knowledge of this special plant. The interest in yerba mate is obviously international, as he tells me that interesting people often stumble through his doors, the last one a Frenchman, Cendrix, who made a documentary on the plant.
Next stop, Oberá. I jump on another bus and I am met at the terminal by the President of the Cooperative Río Parana, who produce a yerba mate known as Titrayju. His fighting spirit and passion for the local people and families in this region is immediately clear and definitely inspirational. He gifts me a book that I would highly recommend, Sabor Amargo by Eduardo Torres, which paints the story of the early migrant farmers on the yerba mate plantations. We visit their “molino,” take a few photographs of the yerba mate and tea plantations and then converse until late over, you guessed it, mate, before hopping in a taxi to Tacuara Lodge.
Both the taxi driver and I are a little worried as we turn off the main highway and make our way down a dark windy 1km dirt road, but the journey is well worth it when we finally we see evidence of an exquisite lodge hidden away in the forest.
As I had suspected from the reviews on Trip Advisor, this is a very special place, built from scratch by this Argentine German blended family, Uwe, Karin and Sasha, who, tired of the previous jobs decided to create their dream life. I stayed in a luxurious private bungalow with a huge comfortable bed, heating, a deluxe bathroom and every other comfort of home that one could want when tucked away in the middle of a forest. The lodge is a home away from home, with an outdoor pool and bar area and a lush garden. Breakfast is a selection of home crafted fruit jams and honey and fresh homemade German breads, with fresh juice and hot coffee. As I leave, Uwe and his boy, Sasha accompany me to the taxi and both give me a warm goodbye. I genuinely recommend this lodge to all travellers up this way.
Los Saltos de Moconá are a convenient hour and a half away from the lodge, accessible by a stunning scenic drive along the Río Uruguay, and are another must-see. They are located on a geographical fault line, are 3000km in length and have a depth of up to 170 metres at some points! It is nice to share this experience with locals, Miguel and Elio from the Cooperative Río Paraná, and we all have huge smiles after the speed boat along the bottom of the waterfall and finishing the day with fried fish, mandioca and a Quilmes at a local restaurant in Soberío.
My last stop is Comandante Andresito, a small town located about an hour from Iguazú, defined by the yerba mate, farming and forestation. Here I meet Raul from the fairtrade organic yerba mate producer, Guayaki, who talks to me about their work with indigenous communities in Paraguay and Argentina, and their efforts to give back to the environment.
Raul and I visit the reserve land acquired by the Foundation Agroecologica Iguazu, a pensinsular of jungle located on the river. The initiative is lead by the visionary of Guayaki, Alex, with broad environmental, social and economic aims to improve the quality of life of local producers in the region through activities and education. We share a mate in the jungle amidst the native fauna, birds and sprouting wild mate – unforgettable.
There’s a nice wooden lodge at the entrance, Surucua Ecolodge, where curious souls can enjoy a comfortable escape in the wilderness, or for the more adventurous, Ecolodge Caburei, with – wait for it, a outdoor Jacuzzi, to enjoy by starlight.
At the end of the day, Raul shows we around his old workplace, the huge factory of the major yerba mate producer, Andresito, which also opens for public tours. The mountains of recently picked yerba mate arriving on overflowing trucks and the burning hot “secadores” (fire ovens) are impressive. From the nursery, to the plantation, to the harvest, the drying process, the shop, and finally into the eager hands of customers, I start to appreciate just how much sweat and blood goes into the production of this drink.
Reaching the end of my short stay in the region, with only the incredible waterfalls of Iguazú awaiting me, I feel richer and in awe of this plant that is so integral to the life and culture of the country.
Sarah Wattie works for The Argentine Experience.