Abstract Aim To document the elevational pattern of epiphyte species richness at the local scale in the tropical Andes with a consistent methodology. Location The northern Bolivian Andes at 350–4000 m above sea level. Methods We surveyed epiphytic vascular plant assemblages in humid forests in (a) single trees located in (b) 90 subplots of 400 m2 each located in (c) 14 plots of 1 ha each. The plots were separated by 100–800 m along the elevational gradient. Results We recorded about 800 epiphyte species in total, with up to 83 species found on a single tree. Species richness peaked at c. 1500 m and declined by c. 65% to 350 m and by c. 99% to 4000 m, while forests on mountain ridges had richness values lowered by c. 30% relative to slope forests at the same elevations. The hump-shaped richness pattern differed from a null-model of random species distribution within a bounded domain (the mid-domain effect) as well as from the pattern of mean annual precipitation by a shift of the diversity peak to lower elevations and by a more pronounced decline of species richness at higher elevations. With the exception of Araceae, which declined almost monotonically, all epiphyte taxa showed hump-shaped curves, albeit with slightly differing shapes. Orchids and pteridophytes were the most species-rich epiphytic taxa, but their relative contributions shifted with elevation from a predominance of orchids at low elevations to purely fern-dominated epiphyte assemblages at 4000 m. Within the pteridophytes, the polygrammoid clade was conspicuously overrepresented in dry or cold environments. Orchids, various small groups (Cyclanthaceae, Ericaceae, Melastomataceae, etc.), and Bromeliaceae (below 1000 m) were mostly restricted to the forest canopy, while Araceae and Pteridophyta were well represented in the forest understorey. Main conclusions Our study confirms the hump-shaped elevational pattern of vascular epiphyte richness, but the causes of this are still poorly understood. We hypothesize that the decline of richness at high elevations is a result of low temperatures, but the mechanism involved is unknown. The taxon-specific patterns suggest that some taxa have a phylogenetically determined propensity for survival under extreme conditions (low temperatures, low humidity, and low light levels in the forest interior). The three spatial sampling scales show some different patterns, highlighting the influence of the sampling methodology.