In this study, the Mean Transit Time and Mixing Model Analysis methods are combined to unravel the runoff generation process of the San Francisco River basin (73.5 km2) situated on the Amazonian side of the Cordillera Real in the southernmost Andes of Ecuador. The montane basin is covered with cloud forest, sub-páramo, pasture and ferns. Nested sampling was applied for the collection of streamwater samples and discharge measurements in the main tributaries and outlet of the basin, and for the collection of soil and rock water samples. Weekly to biweekly water grab samples were taken at all stations in the period April 2007–November 2008. Hydrometric data, Mean Transit Time and Mixing Model Analysis allowed preliminary evaluation of the processes controlling the runoff in the San Francisco River basin. Results suggest that flow during dry conditions mainly consists of lateral flow through the C-horizon and cracks in the top weathered bedrock layer, and that all subcatchments have an important contribution of this deep water to runoff, no matter whether pristine or deforested. During normal to low precipitation intensities, when antecedent soil moisture conditions favour water infiltration, vertical flow paths to deeper soil horizons with subsequent lateral subsurface flow contribute most to streamflow. Under wet conditions in forested catchments, streamflow is controlled by near surface lateral flow through the organic horizon. Exceptionally, saturation excess overland flow occurs. By absence of the litter layer in pasture, streamflow under wet conditions originates from the A horizon, and overland flow. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.