Pollen records from lacustrine sediments of deep basins in the Colombian Andes provide records of vegetation history, the development of the floristic composition of biomes, and climate variation with increasing temporal resolution. Local differences in the altitudinal distribution of present–day vegetation belts in four Colombian Cordilleras are presented. Operating mechanisms during Quaternary Ice–Age cycles that stimulated speciation are discussed by considering endemism in the asteraceous genera Espeletia, Espeletiopsis and Coespeletia. The floristically diverse lower montane forest belt (1000–2300 m) was compressed by ca. 55% during the last glacial maximum (LGM) (20 ka), and occupied the slopes between 800 m and 1400 m during that period. Under low LGM atmospheric pCO2 values, C4–dominated vegetation, now occurring below 2200 m, expanded up to ca. 3500 m. Present–day C3–dominated paramo vegetation is therefore not an analogue for past C4–dominated vegetation (with abundant Sporobolus lasiophyllus). Quercus immigrated into Colombia 478 ka and formed an extensive zonal forest from 330 ka when former Podocarpus–dominated forest was replaced by zonal forest with Quercus and Weinmannia. During the last glacial cycle the ecological tolerance of Quercus may have increased. In the ecotone forests Quercus was rapidly and massively replaced by Polylepis between 45 and 30 ka illustrating complex forest dynamics in the tropical Andes.