Land-use change occurs nowhere more rapidly than in the tropics, where the imbalance between deforestation and forest regrowth has large consequences for the global carbon cycle1. However, considerable uncertainty remains about the rate of biomass recovery in secondary forests, and how these rates are influenced by climate, landscape, and prior land use2-4. Here we analyse aboveground biomass recovery during secondary succession in 45 forest sites and about 1,500 forest plots covering the major environmental gradients in the Neotropics. The studied secondary forests are highly productive and resilient. Aboveground biomass recovery after 20 years was on average 122 megagrams per hectare (Mg ha−1), corresponding to a net carbon uptake of 3.05 Mg C ha−1 yr−1, 11 times the uptake rate of old-growth forests. Aboveground biomass stocks took a median time of 66 years to recover to 90% of old-growth values. Aboveground biomass recovery after 20 years varied 11.3-fold (from 20 to 225 Mg ha−1) across sites, and this recovery increased with water availability (higher local rainfall and lower climatic water deficit). We present a biomass recovery map of Latin America, which illustrates geographical and climatic variation in carbon sequestration potential during forest regrowth. The map will support policies to minimize forest loss in areas where biomass resilience is naturally low (such as seasonally dry forest regions) and promote forest regeneration and restoration in humid tropical lowland areas with high biomass resilience.