Despite rampant colour pattern diversity in South America, Heliconius erato exhibits a ‘postman’ wing pattern throughout most of Central America. We examined genetic variation across the range of H. erato, including dense sampling in Central America, and discovered a deep genetic break, centred on the mountain range that runs through Costa Rica. This break is characterized by a novel mitochondrial lineage, which is nearly fixed in northern Central America, that branches basal to all previously described mitochondrial diversity in the species. Strong genetic differentiation also appears in Z-linked and autosomal markers, and it is further associated with a distinct, but subtle, shift in wing pattern phenotype. Comparison of clines in wing phenotype, mtDNA and nuclear markers indicate they are all centred on the mountains dividing Costa Rica, but that cline width differs among data sets. Phylogeographical analyses, accounting for this new diversity, rewrite our understanding of mimicry evolution in this system. For instance, these results suggest that H. erato originated west of the Andes, perhaps in Central America, and as many as 1 million years before its co-mimic, H. melpomene. Overall our data indicate that neutral genetic markers and colour pattern loci are congruent and converge on the same hypothesis—H. erato originated in northwest South America or Central America with a ‘postman’ phenotype and then radiated into the wealth of colour patterns present today.