We describe patterns of genotypic and phenotypic variation in saddle-back tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis) populations along the central and upper Rio Juruá, western Brazilian Amazonia. The genetic data are sequence haplotypes of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene; phenotypic data are pelage colour variants that define sharply demarcated subspecies of this extremely variable tamarin species. We show that gene flow occurs between adjacent subspecies, but that this phenomenon is restricted to the headwater section of the river, which is consistent with expectations from the riverine barrier hypothesis. In this model, the major first-order tributaries of the Amazon form effective barriers to dispersal, with between-bank gene flow limited to the narrowed sections of headwater streams and parallel divergence increasing along both banks from the headwaters to the mouth of a given river. In meandering rivers such as the Rio Juruá, we suggest passive transfer through river channel dynamics as the main mechanism permitting genetic contact between populations on opposite banks of the river. Finally, we argue that in the case of plant and animal species that are largely restricted to unflooded (terra firme) forests, such as tamarins, seasonally flooded (várzea) forest can operate as a critical additional barrier to between-bank gene flow.