Despite the importance of mountain ranges as water providers, knowledge of their climate variability is still limited, mostly due to a combination of data scarcity and heterogeneous orography. The tropical Andes share many of the main features of mountain ranges in general, and are subject to several climatic influences that have an effect on rainfall variability. Although studies have addressed the large-scale variation, the basin scale has received little attention. Thus, the purpose of this study was to obtain a better understanding of rainfall variability in the tropical Andes at the basin scal, utilizing the Paute River basin of southern Ecuador as a case study. Analysis of 23 rainfall stations revealed a high spatial variability in terms of: (i) large variations of mean annual precipitation in the range 660–3400 mm; (ii) the presence of a non-monotonic relation between annual precipitation and elevation; and (iii) the existence of four, sometimes contrasting, rainfall regimes. Data from seven stations for the period 1964–1998 was used to study seasonality and trends in annual, seasonal and monthly precipitation. Seasonality is less pronounced at higher elevations, confirming that in the páramo region, the main water source for Andean basins, rainfall is well distributed year round. Additionally, during the period of record, no station has experienced extreme concentrations of annual rainfall during the wet season, which supports the concept of mountains as reliable water providers. Although no regional or basin-wide trends are found for annual precipitation, positive (negative) trends during the wet (dry) season found at four stations raises the likelihood of both water shortages and the risk of precipitation-triggered disasters. The study demonstrates how variable the precipitation patterns of the Andean mountain range are, and illustrates the need for improved monitoring. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.