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Explaining geographic variation in plant species richness at broad spatial scales has long been a major challenge. Many hypotheses have been proposed during the last 200 yr, but recent work has focused on a few major alternatives. Among these, two hypotheses contend that plant species richness reflects 1) variation in energy and water availability among sampling units (the species-energy hypothesis) and 2) habitat and topographic heterogeneity within sampling units (the spatial heterogeneity hypothesis). We used a large botanical database and regression models to simultaneously confront the predictions from both hypotheses against an estimate of vascular plant richness across northwest South America. This estimate provided similar support for both hypotheses, a result that may be seen as contrasting with the notion that variation in energy and water availability among sampling units is the main determinant of plant species richness. We discuss potential explanations for this apparent discrepancy. Regression models that incorporated the relative contributions of both hypotheses predicted that the highest plant species richness in northwest South America is found in topographically complex areas. In contrast to several of the most recent mapping efforts, lowland Amazonia was predicted to be a plant richness trough in the study region. We suggest that diverging portrayals of plant richness across northwest South America result from differences in estimates of the relative importance of the species-energy and the spatial heterogeneity hypotheses.