Tropical deforestation is the major contemporary threat to global biodiversity, because a diminishing extent of tropical forests supports the majority of the Earth's biodiversity. Forest clearing is often spatially concentrated in regions where human land use pressures, either planned or unplanned, increase the likelihood of deforestation. However, it is not a random process, but often moves in waves originating from settled areas. We investigate the spatial dynamics of land cover change in a tropical deforestation hotspot in the Colombian Amazon. We apply a forest cover zoning approach which permitted: calculation of colonization speed; comparative spatial analysis of patterns of deforestation and regeneration; analysis of spatial patterns of mature and recently regenerated forests; and the identification of local-level hotspots experiencing the fastest deforestation or regeneration. The colonization frontline moved at an average of 0.84 km yr−1 from 1989 to 2002, resulting in the clearing of 3400 ha yr−1 of forests beyond the 90% forest cover line. The dynamics of forest clearing varied across the colonization front according to the amount of forest in the landscape, but was spatially concentrated in well-defined ‘local hotspots’ of deforestation and forest regeneration. Behind the deforestation front, the transformed landscape mosaic is composed of cropping and grazing lands interspersed with mature forest fragments and patches of recently regenerated forests. We discuss the implications of the patterns of forest loss and fragmentation for biodiversity conservation within a framework of dynamic conservation planning.