We measured macronutrient concentrations in soils and leaves of trees, shrubs and herbs at 1900, 2400 and 3000 m in an Ecuadorian tropical montane forest. Foliar N, P, S and K concentrations in trees were highest at 1900 m (21.7, 2.2, 1.9 and 10.0 mg g−1). At 2400 and 3000 m, foliar concentrations of N, P, S and K were similar to nutrient concentrations in tropical trees with apparent nutrient deficiency, as presented in literature. Unlike foliar nutrient concentrations, the amounts of plant-available nutrients in mineral soil were not affected by altitude or increased significantly with increasing altitude. High C:N ratios (25:1 at 2400 m and 34:1 at 3000 m) and C:P ratios (605:1 at 2400 m and 620:1 at 3000 m) in the soil organic layer suggested slow mineralization of plant litter and thus, a low availability of N and P at high altitudes. Foliar N:P ratios were significantly higher at 2400 m (11.3:1) than at 3000 m (8.3:1), indicating that at high altitudes, N supply was more critical than P supply. In conclusion, the access of plants to several nutrients, most likely N, P, S and K, decreased markedly with increasing altitude in this tropical montane forest.