Take a sip and pass it around. But don’t move the bombilla! We’re talking about mate, the hot tealike beverage popular in Uruguay (and other parts of South America).
Pablo Liberato—the owner of Gaucho Ranch, a store in Miami that sells all kinds of Uruguayan and Argentine products—is a big fan of mate (especially drinking it among friends outdoors). He believes drinking the naturally caffeinated beverage leads to a longer-lasting ability to focus, without the crash that hits many coffee drinkers.
Coffee addicts fear not: You can find espresso and the like in Uruguay. But you will miss a large piece of the country’s culture if you don’t also try mate.
Though some restaurants serve mate, the traditional way to enjoy it is among friends—someone brings the gourd and bombilla (a metal straw with a filter at the bottom), and another might have the leaves and thermos full of hot water—often on the beach. It’s people-watching intensified. Liberato insists that a true Uruguayan drinks mate without sugar, but newbies might want to offset the bitterness with a little sweetener.
He insists that drinking mate provides important health benefits, essential for balancing out the meat-heavy Uruguayan diet.
Since many of the country’s traditional dishes include a fatty meat item (like chorizo, steak, or ham), you can attempt to stave off heartburn and indigestion by consuming the antioxidant-rich mate, he says. After all, if you’re going to travel all the way to Uruguay (and you aren’t a vegetarian), you must try the unofficial national sandwich, the chivito. It’s made with steak, ham, bacon, cheese, hard-boiled egg, mayo, and other toppings, and it goes down best with mate.
Eating well is something visitors to Uruguay do not need to worry about. Asado is Uruguay’s barbecue, and it is consumed at a somewhat astonishing pace. (The country is the world’s No. 1 in cattle per capita, with 11.8 million cows and just 3.4 million people.)
Fortunately, non-carnivores can experience good eating too, thanks to the region’s Spanish and Italian influences. From pizza topped with faina (chickpea flatbread, which sounds weird but is lip-smacking good) to provoleta (a grilled piece of cheese) and all kinds of baked goods, Uruguay deserves just as much recognition as its better-known neighbor Argentina.
Here’s the thing about Uruguay: What it lacks in size, it makes up for in passion—for mate, food, politics, or soccer, the national sport. It is played on many levels (baby fútbol is a thing), and most locals are obsessed with the national team and will gladly engage with you if you want to talk about the sport.
In general, Uruguayans are a friendly, generous bunch. Lest you forget, mate in a group setting is all about sharing. Sipping from the same bombilla or straw as the person next to you helps foster a sense of closeness and camaraderie, and these two are important pieces of Uruguay’s culture.
Sure, Uruguay has stunning beaches and is a well-deserved party reputation (marijuana is legal, and drinking alcohol is a favorite pastime) with menu items to tempt you all day long, but it also has down-to-earth, humble people, and you should be so lucky as to pass around the gourd with them.