Açaí – What is it, Where Does it Grow? Visit an Açaí Market in Brazil.

Every afternoon, boats sail two hours from açaí-palm growing islands in the Amazon River to the açaí market in Santana, to sell the berries that became world-famous after they were claimed to be a superfood.

From a bridge we had a perfect view of the river dwellers’ arrival.

The boats docked along the shore but space was limited and sometimes the boatsmen had to walk from one boat across the next before reaching the shore. That’s easier said than done with a 13-kilo (28-pound) weighing basket on your shoulder, or more than one.

Carrying açaí to the market in Santana, Brazil

Popularity of Açaí as a Superfood

In western countries people eat açaí because of its claim to be a superfood. Açaí is the nutritious, purple-black berry that started conquering the food markets worldwide a number of years ago. Nowadays there are vast agroforestry farms supplying the export market with açaí and much of the açaí harvest goes directly to factories that buy the berries for export.

The rise in the popularity of the açaí berries has created many jobs but also led to a substantial rise in price which has made açaí an expensive product for many locals. Which is a problem, because people in açaí-producing regions depend on açaí as their staple food.

Açaí market in Santana, Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)
Açaí market in Santana, Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)

Where Does Açaí Grow?

Açaí palms grow in swamps and floodplains of Central and South America, with Brazil being the biggest producer of açaí. Its northern states of Pará and Amapá are the country’s main açaí-palm growing regions. The eighty-foot high açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) is a versatile tree. Apart from providing food, the ten-foot-long leaves provide shade, and panicles are used to make handicrafts.

The açaí industry is largely a men’s business: boys climb the trees to harvest the berries, men ply the boats, and men carry the heavy bags and baskets to and from the markets. The women often buy the berries and help to process it for consumption.

Life of the River Dwellers of Santana

Here, among the river dwellers of Santana, a port in the state of Amapa in Northeast Brazil, the açaí production is small scale. The river dwellers have moved from surrounding islands in the Amazon River to the mainland because their islands lack schools and health care.

Here they cut down pristine várzea forest (floodplain forests) and construct houses on stilts connected with walkways just like they do on the islands. Their surroundings are rich in açaí palms and you can watch boys and young men climb the trees and cut off panicles, each of which carries 500 to 900 berries.

Ribeirinhos in Santana, Brazill
Ribeirinhos in Santana, Brazil

While strolling the market we learned some details about the açaí sale. A basket is called a rasa and when filled with açaí it weighs 28.6 pounds. The baskets belong to the vendors; the buyer will bring their own and the berries swap baskets during the purchase.

They increasingly use bags that are typically used for onions (some bags still carry the logo for onions). Each bag of berries weighs around 57 pounds and, as with the baskets, the bags stay with the owner.

Travel Guides for the Amazon

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Açaí for sale, Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)

Eating Açaí the Modern Way

It’s likely that even if you have eaten açaí, you have never seen the berries for the simple reason that they are inedible when harvested. The berries are hard and need to be soaked before being squeezed and strained. The creamy, oily liquid is kept refrigerated and sold locally simply as açaí. High hygienic standards have become important since the emergence of chagas, a potentially deadly tropical parasite disease.

We had eaten açaí in São Paulo, where açaí is popular exactly because of its claim to be an antioxidant-packed superfood. The Paulistas like to eat açaí in the form of sweetened ice cream with toppings like granola and/or guaraná syrup (guaraná is a fruit). Açaí na tigela, ‘açaí in the bowl’, is especially popular in Rio de Janeiro as well as São Paulo. Besides guaraná syrup and granola you can also add a ​banana or other fruits to the dish.

Additional Reading about the Brazilian Amazon

Açaí icecream in Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)

Eating Açaí the Traditional Way

When we drove around in the region of Santana we had seen signs with nothing but a number. It took a while to figure out that these signs indicate a vendor/restaurant/food stall where you can buy açaí, with the number being the price per liter.

Here, in Santana, we learn that the city-way is NOT the proper way to eat açaí. In fact, they seem to be insulted by the fact that sugar is added to it. We were invited with river dwellers for a meal. There we got a bowl of açaí without sugar but with the addition of tapioca (edible cassava starch) or farinha (cassava flour).

The locals either eat açaí as a main meal or as a side dish with fish or charque (sun-dried meat). Even if you’re not a sugar-craving person, eating açaí without sugar is a required taste. We came to really appreciate it and have missed the food ever since we left Brazil.

Practical Information on the Açaí Market in Santana

  • Santana lies a few kilometers from Macapa, the capital of Amapá. Cut from the rest of Brazil by the Amazon River and Amazon Rainforest, getting there isn’t a matter of course (although you can fly to Macapá from any main city in Brazil), but all the more a trip for the adventurous. Take a boat trip from Manaus (see below), or from Belém.
  • You will find a tourist infrastructure of hotels and restaurants in Macapá.
  • The market is dedicated to açaí. Combine your visit with a walk in the nearby mangroves where you may see the açaí harvest and the production of handicrafts made of the leaves of the açaí palms.
  • By the way, do you know Macapá boasts a football stadium on the equator? The centerline runs right across it.

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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on Landcruisingadventure.com or on Instagram.

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