Abstract Aim To provide a greater understanding of the modern pollen rain for the central Andes region of South America, thus laying the groundwork for future pollen studies and the derivation of pollen-climate transfer functions and response surfaces. Location Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Methods Standard palynological techniques for surface soil sampling and discriminant analysis. Results Statistical analysis of the 40 surface samples revealed four palynologically distinct assemblages: (1) the Yungas on the eastern slopes of the Andes; (2) the puna grasslands of the Altiplano; (3) the Coastal Deserts to the west of the Andes; and (4) the Southern Bolivian Highlands. Main conclusions The Yungas group is characterized by high percentages of Urticaceae/Moraceae pollen and fern spores along with trace amounts of pollen from common zoophilous lowland taxa such as Piperaceae, Bignoniaceae and Malpighiaceae. The puna assemblage of the Altiplano is characterized by the dominance of grass (Poaceae) in combination with moderate frequencies of Asteraceae pollen, which tend to increase slightly towards the southern (drier) locations of the Altiplano. Lower percentages of grass pollen and the greater prevalence of Asteraceae, Solanaceae, and the Chenopodiaceae/Amaranthaceae families define the coastal deserts to the west of the Andes. Samples taken from the Southern Bolivian Highlands are characterized by the dominance of Solanaceae in the area, in combination with the pollen of other xerophytic taxa.