If you visit Uruguay, one of the first things you’ll notice is that almost everyone who looks like a local is carrying these little rectangular satchels, usually leather, that kind of look like purses. These are carried by all genders and contain a thermos and a small cup with a metal straw.
These little satchels are called materas, and they are accessories created for a unique habit: carrying around your own personal supplies for drinking mate, the caffeinated drink whose flavor many compare to green tea and that’s made from the yerba mate plant, a type of holly bush. Mate was first drunk by the Guarani and then adopted by the Tupi people from the area of South America that is now southern Brazil, northeast Argentina, and parts of Paraguay. In fact, you’ll likely also find people toting around materas in Argentina and Paraguay.
If you’ve read about mate, you’ve probably read about it being shared among friends, with groups of people passing around the same cup, traditionally made from a hollowed out calabash gourd (also called a mate), and drinking from the same metal straw with a little strainer in the bottom, called a bombilla in Spanish and bomba in Portuguese.
And while Uruguayans will drink mate in this communal way (although even in a group setting they will often have their own cup and just pass around the hot water source), the main way they have become one of the largest consumers of tea and tea-like beverages per capita in the world is through the matera. Most drinkers keep a thermos—which is often decorated with stickers, much like you would put political bumper stickers on your car—and a mate and bombilla in their own personal matera over their shoulder, with the gear kept close by their sides at all times, sipping mate as they ride the bus, take walks, shop, and go about their daily lives.
Uruguay is one of the most progressive countries in Latin America, and their approach to drinking mate mirrors their more egalitarian approach to life. Many residents aren’t big on formal ceremony or old-fashioned tradition, and in fact are more likely to use the informal second person when speaking even to someone they’ve recently met. So, it makes sense that they’d see no problem with sipping their own personal mate anytime, anywhere, rather than sitting down in a circle and making a whole ceremonial thing out of it.
Need to Know
Materas are sold in shops all over Uruguay, but if you’re not already a mate drinker, it can end up being a rather pricey souvenir. If you are a mate lover, the products from Manos del Uruguay are well-made and the organization supports craftspeople, particularly women, living in rural areas. You can buy yerba mate itself to brew in any grocery store in the country. Don’t be alarmed by how large the bags are. Uruguayans drink a ton of this stuff.