The objective of this study was to analyse the factors explaining spatial variation in soil respiration over topographic transects in a tropical rain forest of French Guiana. The soil of 30 plots along six transects was characterized. The appearance of the ‘dry to the touch’ character at a depth of less than 1.2 m was used to discriminate soils exhibiting vertical drainage from soils exhibiting superficial lateral drainage and along with colour and texture, to define five classes from well-drained to strongly hydromorphic soils. Spatial variation in soil respiration was closely related to topographic position and soil type. Increasing soil water content and bulk density and decreasing root biomass and soil carbon content explained most of the decrease in soil respiration from the plateaux (vertically drained hypoferralic acrisol) to the bottomlands (haplic gleysol). These results will help to stratify further field experiments and to identify the underlying determinants of spatial variation in soil respiration to develop mechanistic models of soil respiration.