When most people think about tea, they imagine stodgy European tea rooms or exotic Far East ceremonies. The truth is that every culture in the world has a relationship with tea — but what that tea comes from varies from place to place.
South America has always had a vibrant and bizarre tea scene; even before the Spanish set foot in the New World, indigenous South American groups were experimenting with tropical brews. Many ancient teas are still widely beloved in Central and South American countries, so on your next trip south you should seek out these five mysterious, delicious drinks.
1. Yerba Mate
The Guarani people, who are indigenous to the regions of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, say that yerba mate came into the world as a gift from the moon, who was saved from becoming a jaguar’s dinner by a benevolent Guarani hunter. No matter how yerba mate came to be, it remains one of the most beloved drinks of central and western South America.
To be honest, yerba mate isn’t rightfully a tea — it’s an infusion. Tea can actually only be made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and mate is made from the leaves of a shrub native to Paraguay, Ilex paraguariensis. The leaves are dried and powdered, and today, manufacturers package them into large or small bundles to be sold around the continent. The proper way to make mate is to fill a wooden cup (or traditionally, a cured gourd) halfway with the herb and add hot water (just before boiling) to one side. Then, using a bombilla, a metal straw that has a strainer on the end, you can enjoy your mate.
Aficionados — particularly Argentinians, who consume roughly 250,000 tons of herb every year — prefer to drink the infusion straight, relishing the slightly bitter, overwhelmingly earthy flavor. However, some drinkers add small amounts of sugar, and others add dried orange and lemon peel for some zip.
2. Damiana Leaf
Long ago, when a rich Aztec lord was eager to have a wild night with his mistress, he would send his servants to search the surrounding rocky hillsides for the leaves of a certain yellow-flowered plant. When steeped in water, damiana leaves creates an infusion purported to have outstanding aphrodisiac abilities. Even today, men and women who enjoy damiana tea claim to have increased energy levels — both inside and outside the bedroom.
Damiana is reported to have other health benefits as well: anxiety relief, digestion support, menstrual aid, and more. Western research has yet to confirm any of these effects. However, it is true that damiana leaf tea is deliciously and naturally spiced, with a flavor similar to the familiar chamomile, and American drinkers can easily find damiana leaf tea at most qualified tea shops.
3. Coca Leaf
Coca leaf was used for centuries by the Andes-climbing Incans as a tasty way to overcome the various symptoms of altitude sickness, including nausea and fatigue. Coca can be experienced in several forms, including chew and candy, but the most popular method is brewing coca leaf tea.
Most Americans snicker at the thought of drinking coca leaf tea, which draws its main ingredient from the same plant responsible for cocaine. Highly illegal in the United States, coca is a narcotic stimulant in all its forms. However, Peruvians and Bolivians enjoy the mild buzz from coca tea with the same innocent devotion with which most Americans drink coffee. Still, travelers should be aware that authorities will not tolerate attempts to smuggle the leaf out of South America, even if it is just to brew more tea.
4. Acai Berry
The sweet, bright, slightly bitter taste of acai berries has taken the world by storm, but not many acai-lovers know that the berries originate in South America. For millennia, indigenous tribes in the Amazon collected the small purple berries from the heights of the acai palm and used them in all sorts of medicines. Today, acai is lauded as a superfood containing copious antioxidants, anti-inflammatory benefits, and cancer-fighting qualities. It is easy enough to find acai-flavored anything in American health food stores, and indeed, several tea vendors purvey acai berry tea nearly as good as it is in northern Brazil and Trinidad.
Coffee and tea often seem like competing beverages, but cascara tea seems to unite them in one drink. In fact, with a pleasant flavor, a noticeable caffeine kick, and a sustainable method of preparation, there is certainly plenty to appreciate about cascara.
To make coffee, farmers grow coffee berries until they are ripe, carve out the precious coffee beans, and ship them to roasters who can educe that deep java flavor. However, coffee farmers have long held onto the skins of those berries themselves, dried them in the sun, and brewed tea that boasts a rich, fruity flavor quite unlike coffee. The process reduces the waste of the nearly 8.5 million tons of beans produced every year, and many coffee enthusiasts around the world are beginning to develop a taste for this more subtle variety of their favorite drink.