Puya (Bromeliaceae), with > 200 species, is a classic example of a recent, rapid species-level radiation in the Andes. To assess the biogeographical history of this primarily Andean species group and the evolution of different life histories, amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) data were generated for 75 species from throughout the geographical range of the genus. Distribution data for latitudinal and elevational ranges were compiled for almost all species. The greatest number of species is found at mid-elevations and mid-latitudes south of the equator. The genus originated in central Chile and first moved into the Cordillera Oriental of the central Andes via inter-Andean valleys. Cladogenesis progressed in a general south to north direction tracking the final uplift of the Andes. All taxa north of the Western Andean Portal form a monophyletic group implying a single colonization of the northern Andes, with no subsequent transitions back south from the Northern Andes. Repeated evolutionary transitions of lineages up and down in elevation are suggestive of allopatric speciation driven by Pleistocene glaciation cycles. True semelparity evolved once in P. raimondii, with similar semi-semelparity evolving repeatedly in páramos of the northern Andes. Fieldwork and phylogenetic characterization of high-elevation Puya are priorities for future efforts. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ●●, ●●–●●.