Increasing evidence suggests that the infectiousness of patients for the sand fly vector of visceral leishmaniasis is linked to parasites found in the skin. Using a murine model that supports extensive skin infection with Leishmania donovani, spatial analyses at macro-(quantitative PCR) and micro-(confocal microscopy) scales indicate that parasite distribution is markedly skewed. Mathematical models accounting for this heterogeneity demonstrate that while a patchy distribution reduces the expected number of sand flies acquiring parasites, it increases the infection load for sand flies feeding on a patch, increasing their potential for onward transmission. Models representing patchiness at both macro- and micro-scales provide the best fit with experimental sand fly feeding data, pointing to the importance of the skin parasite landscape as a predictor of host infectiousness. Our analysis highlights the skin as a critical site to consider when assessing treatment efficacy, transmission competence and the impact of visceral leishmaniasis elimination campaigns.Parasitemia has been considered the main determinant of visceral leishmaniasis transmission. By combining imaging, qPCR and experimental xenodiagnoses with mathematical models, Doehl et al. argue that the patchy landscape of parasites in the skin is necessary to explain infectiousness.