Fine Living in Cuenca Via a Photographers Lens

Lifestyle : Ecuador

Fine Living in Cuenca Via a Photographer’s Lens. By Donna Stiteler

Parque Calderón photographed by Jane Hiltbrand

Walk by 9-52 Simón Bolivar in downtown Cuenca, Ecuador on any given day and you’ll pass the historic emerald green and cream ceramic China House, where a handsome, stylish man stands on the wrought iron balcony looking down at you. Like many who pass the building, you might wonder “Why is he standing there and who is he?” Cuenca expat and photographer Jane Hiltbrand was captivated by the colorful Art Nouveau style façade, as well as its mysterious man on the balcony, and did more than just wonder. She went inside the China House and started photographing the polychrome brass designs on the ceilings and walls and climbed the wooden staircase to the second floor, where the mystery unraveled. The man in the window turned out to be a mannequin modeling one of David Anthony’s handmade suits, which he can pound out in only five days at his China House trajes para hombre shop. Jane also learned that the China House earned its popular name due to its elegantly decorated frontage, which is clad from top to bottom in pieces of china.

Jane’s passion for historical buildings began at a young age, when her parents rented a historic carriage house on The Narrows overlooking the New York Harbor in Brooklyn, New York.“It was an amazing place to grow up and gave me an appreciation of the history a house holds,” Jane says.
Her mother worked at LIFE magazine and growing up learning about photography and the distinctive architecture of the carriage house instilled Jane’s love of both art forms.

“I never forgot my childhood exposure to historical buildings, nor my love for architecture. But I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to earn a living with photography—I didn’t want to have the burden of photography being a job. I wanted to keep it as a pure pleasure.”

So instead, Jane started out working in television advertising, and then became a real estate broker in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Nevertheless, her interests still found some expression in her work: “Whenever possible in my real estate career, I tried to specialize in historic or vintage properties. So, these have been my two special loves for a long time adds Jane.

Jane took two exploratory trips to investigate Ecuador, and landed up in Cuenca, the undisputed cultural capital of the country, a scenic colonial Andes mountain town sitting at 8,400 feet elevation with a population of 450,000, crossed by no fewer than four rivers.
“The moment I drove into Cuenca, it was love at first sight. You’re in this old, historical city, and living in the middle of it was very appealing to me.”

Jane retired to Cuenca in 2017. She’d done her financial projections, totaled everything up and realized that, although she could afford to retire in the States, doing so wouldn’t be as much fun as moving to Ecuador. “I would mostly be paying bills,” she notes. “After the real estate crash in 2008, retirement wasn’t going to be what I thought it was. One thing I wanted in my retirement was affordable travel.

That’s definitely available here in South America, and there’s so much to see. I have already traveled to Peru, Chile, and Patagonia, and I am planning trips to Buenas Aires, Argentina and Uruguay, Jane adds. “Staying home in Ecuador is a pleasure, too. I fell in love with Cuenca because of its gorgeous architecture and also the friendliness and warmth of the Ecuadorian people.”
The cost of living is low all over Ecuador. Cuenca, in particular, is an easily walked city, and public transportation is 35 cents for a bus or tram ride. Taxis are $2.50 or less to get most places in town. Most expats don’t own a car. This high in the Andes, utilities run around $50 a month because you don’t need air conditioning or heating; and, because propane, used for hot water and the stove, costs $3.00 a cannister, there’s not as much need for electricity. Rents can run between $350 and $700 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment/condo, or house, depending on the size and location.

It means that many Cuenca expats find they can live very comfortably, and still have enough for travel, social life, and to enjoy the busy arts scene.

“The first weekend I was here there was a party for the opening of the newly restored Casa Museo Remigio Crespo Toral, the historic house which once belonged to the Ecuadorian poet, Remigio Crespo Toral. There were beautiful young Cuencana women modeling period clothing for the opening reception, the museum was jam-packed with people, a lot of them older established Cuencanos. There was a classical music concert in the auditorium, and a jazz band playing in the café in back,” notes Jane. “I knew straight away that this was the city for me.”

Like a lot of expats who come to Cuenca, being able to live well without the pull of a high-pressure job left Jane with time to rediscover passions that had been parked while she focused on her career. When she moved into the post career phase of her life, Jane reignited the photography skills she’d honed at Boston University, where she studied photojournalism as an undergraduate. She strung her camera around her neck like a valued piece of jewelry and logged miles walking in Cuenca’s historic district, photographing not only the French façades and classic Spanish architecture but also the ornate interiors and courtyards hidden behind the unassuming wooden doors of the most famous buildings in the city.

The buildings of Cuenca fascinated Jane and inspired her to become a “visual storyteller” using her photographs to capture the stories, both past and present, of the 16th-century Spanish colonial and 18th-century French Republican architectural structures in Cuenca. That rich, and rare, environment is part of the vibrant cultural package which earned the city its UNESCO Heritage site designation.

“I enjoy the idea of photography being a record of a moment in time. It might be why I enjoy looking at old historic photographs so much,” explains Jane about her inspiration. “More than anything else, it gives you a good idea of what life was like 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even last week.”

“My Spanish teacher, Cristina Flores Ortiz, with Walking Spanish Lessons, gave me a copy of a guide to Cuenca architecture, written in Spanish,” says Jane. “It covers 165 historical properties. The original guide only has exterior photos, but I’ve been attempting to take interior photos of these buildings as well. Additionally, I try to share a little bit of the history involved. I sometimes post old historical photos of the buildings, if I am able to find them.”

Although the pandemic slowed her progress in photographing the city’s buildings, Jane feels the pause during quarantine gave her the time to create her blog, – A Guide to Cuenca Architecture, and study the history of the local architecture. She’s particularly interested in the French influence on Cuenca’s buildings, which is a rare feature in South America, as the continent was mostly colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese.

And, like the man standing in the window at the China House, Jane is a constant observer of life in Cuenca. An expert interpreter chronicling Cuenca’s history through her photography, which captures the past and combines it with the present.
Her visual storytelling creates memories of stories from times past and instills in us expats that we too are a part of the city’s rich history.

French Flair in A South American City

WHY? Cuenca’s dance with the French began in 1736, when the French Geodesic Mission came to Ecuador with the purpose of measuring the roundness of the Earth. The process involved measuring the length of a degree of latitude at the equator, which bisects the country and gives it its name (“Ecuador” in Spanish means “equator”). Hearing that Cuenca was a city favored by both Incas and Spanish as “the jewel of Ecuador,” the French traveled south to Cuenca from their expedition in Quito. Cuenca’s high rollers were so impressed by the flamboyant French that they deemed their society as the most elegant in the world and soon adopted aspects of its culture as their own. Soon, upper-class Cuencanos were plastering French Republican façades over their Spanish colonial exteriors, building French-inspired parks around town, buying Louis XVI furniture, and sending their children to French schools abroad. This era had a profound effect on Cuenca and was instrumental in turning it into the cultural capital of Ecuador. Photo of China House by Jane Hiltbrand.

The city now boasts a bustling downtown, modern conveniences, a renowned flower market, indigenous textile markets, and the famed three baby-blue domes of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (situated on the corner of the French inspired town square, Parque Calderón).
Tourism over the past five years has increased by 30%, and Cuenca has become a popular destination because of its mix of Inca, Spanish, and French cultures, as well as a downtown boasting more than 300 restaurants and blocks of chic shops tucked into the delightful historical architecture.


Author Donna Stiteler gave up her high-stress job in 2014 and moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, where she lives in a beautiful hacienda overlooking the Andes mountains.


Calle de las Herrerias

This country house takes its name from the area in which it is located, Chaguarchimbana, on Calle de las Herrerias. Chaguarchimbana means “chaguarquero”, or the shallowest place for crossing the river. No-one knows exactly when the area gained this name, but it pre-dates the colonial period.

During the Inca period,the Royal Road passed by this place, connecting the two most important Incan cities, namely Tomebamba and Cuzco. In the colonial period the area was taken over by the city’s wealthy families, because of its scenic landscape and also because it was an advantageous site for obtaining farming produce to meet daily needs.

Records indicate that in 1832 the property belonged to Juan Izquierdo del Prado, the city council’s scribe. On his death the estate was divided into two parts, with the River Yanuncay serving as the common boundary.
José Miguel Narciso Valdivieso, purchased this part of the land in 1862, and in 1875 it was inherited by his son Antonio, who built the country house as a holiday home. In 1908 Chaguarchimbana passed into the hands of his niece Florencia Astudillo Valdivieso, who died on March 18, 1956, at the age of 87. 

At that time, Chaguarchimbana was one of the most elegant mansions in the region, in the middle of the city and the countryside, considered a house full of luxuries and comforts, with wide corridors, gardens, and murals that adorned the front facade. 

This colonial-style house is arranged around a patio, two floors, a large entrance gate and an entrance corridor, it also shows characteristics of the region: wide corridors, bluish or lilac colors on the walls and a watch tower where one could observe Cuenca. 

It was restored in 1992 , where it housed the Museum of the Earth and the Arts of Fire under the responsibility of the Paúl Rivet Foundation. Later it passed into the hands of the Municipality of Cuenca. 

On the second floor balcony there is a series of murals c 1910 inspired by European prints, a very frequent practice among painters of that time. They could be from the hand of Nicolas Vivar known for having frescoed many of the houses and churches of that time.

Some of the metal work on display at the “Museo de las Artes Del Fuego”

Casa Del Artista


Old Photo with view from under the Yanuncay Aqueduct.

Same location October 2020

This house dates from 1903 and was owned by the priest Jesús Arriaga. It is located in what used to be the southern entrance to the city, on Avenida Loja, and the banks of the Yanuncay River, and next to the stone and brick arch of the Yanuncay Aqueduct, which carried water to the first hydroelectric plant in Cuenca.

The patio and wall come from Yanuncay river rocks.

In addition to being a priest, Jesus Arriaga was a historian and dedicated himself to researching pre-Columbian history. Father Jesus Arriaga directly influenced researcher Dr. Max Uhle, who confirmed in 1922 that Cuenca was the Incan city of Tomebamba.

In 1908 it passed into the hands of the Durán family and for over three generations it belonged to the Duran Guerrero family. 

After the house survived two fires, the City of Cuenca purchased it in 2004. After a restoration process in 2017, it was called the Casa Del Arco, because of its location next to the Aqueduct arches.

Video of restoration: 

The house is made of adobe and wattle and daub walls. 

In 2018 it was repurposed as La Casa del Artista.  On the ground floor are two rooms which are used as a gallery for art exhibitions.  The other rooms are used for art workshops. 

Substation of the Municipal Hydroelectric Plant. Large iron towers along Av. 10 de Agosto and Av. Solano supported the cables that reached the substation from where electricity was distributed throughout the city.

The City of Cuenca was very excited to get electricity in 1914.

Casa de las Posadas

Gran Colombia 17-44 y Baltazara de Calderón streets.

Built in the 1760’s this is a fine example of Cuenca’s colonial period architecture. The name is derived from it’s original purpose as an inn. Strategically located on what was then the entrance to the city on the coast road, it provided accomodation for the indigenous peoples and traders who brought their harvest and products to be exchanged or sold in the city markets.

Before restoration….The structure gained national heritage status in 1982. The restoration was done in 2006.

Painting of the Virgen del Carmen….unknown painter

Casa de las Posadas is located in the San Sebastián neighborhood , on Gran Colombia 17-44 and Baltazara de Calderón streets.

Cuenca old and new….Casa de las Posadas, one of the oldest buildings in Cuenca, with the new Tranvia passing in front.

There were two stone lined water canals discovered buried under this section of the Tranvia line.

Before, and after restoration…..

It is now a Cultural Patrimonial Property of the City of Cuenca, and serves as a venue and gallery for various art shows.

Quinta Bolivar

24 de Mayo y Gapal

Simon Bolivar, The Great Latin American Liberator, visited Cuenca in September 1822.  The current building is not the actual house where Bolivar stayed, but it is in the location of the home where he did stay, and has been dedicated to a museum in his honor. 

In 1822 Bolivar’s army had a great victory at the Battle of Pichincha on May 24th, in the fight for independence from Spain.  Following that on June 16th he triumphantly entered Quito, where he received a hero’s welcome.   This was also the day he first met Manuela Saenz, who was to become his lover, and also a very important part of Ecuadorian history.

Bolivar traveled extensively that year, in endeavors to create “Gran Colombia” which at its height eventually included present day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and parts of northern Peru and northwestern Brazil.  After meeting with General San Martin in July in Guayaquil, he traveled to Cuenca through the Cajas mountains, and was received with flower arches, banquets and parties, and celebrations.  He was invited to stay at the old Chaguarchimbana estate, owned at the time by Maria Castro de Izquierdo, a very rich woman, and the mother-in-law of Antonio Soler.  She was an antimonarchist and a staunch supporter of independence, and she invited Bolivar to stay in the house and work in a quiet environment on his ambitious freedom plans for the whole of Latin American.

However, the country house in which he stayed is not the one standing today. That building was demolished in the 1930’s.  The house we see today was built in 1936 by Benjamin Ramirez Arteaga, a prominent legal adviser.  It was used as a holiday home, and during its heyday family and friends would frequently gather for parties on the banks of the Yanuncay River. 

Quinta Bolivar has a library with an important bibliographic collection on Bolivar, and the time of Independence.  The library is named after Manuela Saenz.

This is the only known photograph of the actual house where Bolivar stayed…..

In 1960, Dr. Ramirez donated the property to the Azuay Employees Associate, which used the house initially for its meetings and then rented it out.  Several years later, by which time the house had fallen into an advanced state of decay, Cuenca City Council purchased it and embarked on renovation works. The renovation process began in 2004 and ended in 2005. 

This is a photo of the current house, before the renovation by the City.

The house is a homage to the Liberator of America and since July 2005 has accommodated the city’s Bolivar Museum.

Iglesia Santo Domingo

Gran Colombia y Padre Aguirre

The history of the Dominican Church and monastery is closely linked to the Spanish foundation of the city.  The viceroy of Peru Andres Hurtado de Mendoza issued instructions to Gil Ramirez Davolos for the foundation in Cuenca of a monastery dedicated to St. Dominic. A few years later, in 1562, brother Tomas Galiano commenced the building works, completing them in 1569, and dedicating the buildings to Our Lady of the Rosary. The first monastery erected was a humble building made from bahareque, a type of adobe and straw, with very few priests for services.

Angel of Santo Domingo

The present day church was built between 1906 and 1926.  Outstanding features of the facade are the two towers.  Made from brick they stand forty metres high.

There are two chapels the This is the Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary accessed from Gran Colombia Street.

The church bells are the largest in the city and are popularly known by the names of St. Rose and Ronca Moreno.  In the first case this is due to its christening along with hundreds of other bells on the feast day of St. Rose, in Europe, in 1706.  The other bell was apparently made in Cuenca on the basis of mingas  -work in kind by the community under the supervision of Father Moreno, who wanted it to the largest and loudest in the city.  The bell is 2.6 metres wide and 2 meters high, and it produces a deep, heavy sound.  The towers can be seen from various points of the city.

At the very top is a statue of St. Dominic, the patron saint of the religious order, holding a string of rosary beads.

The interior floors of the church are based on wooden planks, arranged in a square shaped pattern.

Genuine treasures of the church are the colonial canvases depicting the fifteen mysteries of the rosary all with the same gold leaf frames.  These paintings date to the 1700’s.

The monastery is accessed via an external door, and also another entrance is inside  the church, linking the church to the cloister gallery. 

The Festival de Luces celebration, in early December, begins in the Santo Domingo Plaza. The Virgin is brought outside to the front of the church, to bless the crowds.

Christmas Lights at Santo Domingo Plaza

Pasaje León

Presidente Córdova 10-79

A Guide to Cuenca Architecture #38 PASAJE LEÓN. The León Passage was designed by the León Delgado family in 1930 as a large urban boulevard for commercial activities. Its construction was funded by the Delgado family, which had amassed a fortune through the exportation of Panama hats. It was planned as the first “Shopping Street in Cuenca.” Pasaje León was designed by Carlos Ordóñez Mata, and influenced by French neoclassical design. The entrance is on Presidente Córdova, bordering Plaza San Francisco. The door is an exquisite example of intricate wrought-iron, 26 feet high.

Internally, the spaces are organized around the “passage” and have relatively high ceilings, while the different sections of the building are connected via bridges with Art Nouveau ironwork. All the internal spaces, including the staircases, have polychrome brass ceilings.

The front door overlooks Plaza San Francisco.

Plaza San Francisco vendors.

All of the original floor tiles were restored.

The building has been used for several purposes. Around 1946 it accommodated railway warehouses, and in the 1950s it was turned into a boarding house for students.
In the 1980s the west side of the building was damaged by fire, resulting in the replacement of ceilings, windows and a staircase.

French neoclassic design, very popular in Cuenca at the beginning of the 1900’s, which was a time of great prosperity for the city of Cuenca.

Brass is one of the most attractive elements of the decoration . There are more than 1,968 sq ft of polychrome brass that adorn the ceiling and moldings of the central patio.

Beautiful twenty-six foot high wrought iron door

In 2015 the City of Cuenca executed a complete restoration of the building which at that point had been abandoned for almost a year. Ten property restorers recovered the wooden doors that were over 80 years old and moth-eaten. They were covered with chemicals that will protect them for decades The experts also improved the front door, wrought iron railings and the original tiles of the courtyard. The restoration was completed in 2015 during the administration of Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera.

During the restoration, this inscription was found painted on a wooden beam ” Esta casa en 1934 pintó Gabriel G. Guncay.”

Iglesia de Todos Santos

Bajada Todos Santos y Calle Larga

The place where Iglesia Todos Santos is today, originally was an indigenous shrine with the name of Usno. When the Spanish occupations began in Cuenca, the first Catholic masses were celebrated in this same temple in 1540. Spaniard Rodrigo Núñez de Bonilla, is attributed with the construction of the first Catholic church built on this site in 1557.

 The current structure was built in 1820, following instructions from Bishop Miguel Leon. Garrido. In 1895 the chapel and surrounding grounds were donated to the Oblate nuns . The complex was built including the church, the school, and the convent. The Oblates nuns ran a school which was the first to offer free education to indigenous girls.

In March 1924 it was given the name “Todos Santos’ due to the variety of saints that were inside. One of Cuenca’s historic boundary crosses stands outside, one of several in the city.

In 2005 a disastrous fire destoyed a large portion of the church and the semi-cloister convent in which the Oblates nuns live, and in 2007 there was another fire. From 2007 to 2014 there was a long process of restoration. In January 2014 the Oblate Sister of the Most Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary, after seven years of restoration opened the church to show this hidden gem of Cuenca.

Cuenca, old and new on Calle Larga…..

During the restoration the restorers found murals from the early 1900’s which had been covered over by several layers of white paint. The wooden stairs to the tower were repaired to provide safe access to the one of the best views of the city and the Tomebamba River.

The bells in the tower. You can see how old the wood is in these steps to the tower.

There is a life-sized statue of Jesus in the tower. There is only enough room for maybe one or two other people.

Sister Ruth is giving a tour of the garden. The rear garden facing the Tomebamba River is a well tended native garden, where the stone terraces built by the ancient Canaris are visible again, and provide a backdrop and support for the walkways and planting beds filled with herbs, and organic fruits and vegetables, oregano, cedron, dill, cilantro, celery, and colorful flowers.

This very old key is the actual key to the garden door.

The Todosantos bakery was famous in the city and the smell of fresh bread, characterized the neighborhood for decades until the mid-twentieth century when the old wood-burning oven stopped working due to the deterioration of the adobe and bahareque structure that housed it. The historic wood-burning oven was recovered in the conservation project.

Previously the popular Todosantos restaurant was in the basement of the nuns convent.

Note the curved contours of the adobe/bahareque walls. One of the murals that was discovered hidden for many years under layers of white-washed paint, and restored in place.

This chair is from the 16th century (1500’s).

Todos Santos at night from the Tomebamba River. Photo on the right is from the 1950’s of the Iglesia, and Bajada de Todos Santos.

Museo de Monasterio de las Conceptas

Hermano Miguel 6-33

This group of adobe walls and large tiled roofs encompasses an entire city block in the historic center composed of Borrero, Presidente Cordova, Juan Jaramillo and Hermano Miguel streets. It was the first nuns’ convent in the city founded in 1599. It includes the convent, a church, and the Museum.

During the colonial period there were few options for women. They could marry, or become nuns, or remain single, which was not a comfortable option. This cloistered covent was founded in July 1599 at the request of the city’s residents, and with alms from the city residents. Doña Leonor Ordóñez, a widow,donated the family house to accomodate the convent, and the only condition was that her three daughters would have to be accepted into the cloister. The house already had its own small church.

This large house with more than four courtyards with large adobe and bahareque rooms was inhabited by about 150 people in 1790. They were nuns, novices and servants. Later there were discipline problems among the nuns and servants, so Bishop Miguel León ordered the convent’s employees to leave. For more than 400 years the entire building was occupied by the nuns.

The museum exhibits the sculptures, objects, paintings, and altarpieces from the old convent, hidden to the eyes of the general public for over four hundred years.

Currently the Museum of the Monastery of the Conceptas, has 24 rooms; 8 of these are on the ground floor, where information is provided about the convent, its restoration, and how the daily life of the nuns developed..

There is a beautiful series of black and white photographs by Gustavo Landívar that show the different activities of the cloister nuns, such as prayer, making hosts, bread, and agua de pitimas (healing drink).

The central courtyard gardens showcase every herb, flower and plant that once grew inside. Besides being beautiful, they are like veritable botanical gardens full of variety and color. There are datura and penapenas, acanthus, chamburo, ciglaló, the Heart of Mary, linden, feverfew, and San Pedro cactus.

The niches where nuns were previously buried are also preserved on the first floor.

The entrance to the museum is on Calle Miguel Hermano.

The face of Saint Michael the Archangel, a life size carving from the 17th century, is framed by the real hair of a novice. It has a silver sword carved in the first half of the 17th century. San Miguel Arcángel is a warrior who has on his head a European warrior’s helmet but with feathers that represented the Andean warriors. The wings are made with gold leaf that represent the European culture and contain mirrors that are symbols of the Cañari culture.

The sculpture of San Miguel Arcángel has its’ own room. The Las Conceptas community had him as a protector against thieves. If the nuns heard any noise in the Cloister, they were not scared because they believed that Saint Michael was prowling the corridors to protect them.

The Museum has a beautiful collection of sculptures of angels from the 18th and 18th century.

The convent received rich gifts and donations. Inside, great works of art, furniture, jewelry and glassware were kept, which were almost always hidden from the outside world.It was only in the1960s that these treasures began to be exhibited to the public, since by monastic orders they remained out of sight. In 1966 a few pieces of the monastery came out for the first time and were part of an exhibition that traveled through some cities in the United States .

This is believed to be one of the earliest photographs of Cuenca, in which one can clearly see the belfry of the Monasterio. It must have been a city landmark during the colonial and republican periods.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a restoration project was generated in the monastery to turn it into a museum. This project was carried out by two young Cuenca architects, Edmundo Iturralde and Gustavo Lorrelt, who worked with architect Hernán Crespo Toral.

 Work commenced on a restoration project for the present day museum, sponsored by the Central Bank of Ecuador. The project involved the remodeling of the old infirmary and cemetery to accommodate the Museum of Religious Art, which opened to the public in 1986.

Since the girls who entered the convent were often as young as 8-12 years old, they brought their toys with them. There is a room devoted to the toys these young girls brought with them.The girls who entered the convent belonged to the wealthy classes and they took their toys with them to the convent for a temporary or permanent residence.

There are rooms where the daily life of the nuns is recreated , such as the cells where they slept. The nuns kitchen, the large pots and the products they used from the garden are also recreated.

Carved stone steps leading into the church.

The present day church was built in 1712. In 1876 another building phase commenced resulting in the addition of an infirmary, novice house, and the completion of the belfry. The carved doors of the church date to 1924.

On the feast day for Michel Archangel on September 29th there is a special mass in the church. Then the faithful celebrate it by taking the statue outside of the church in a procession around the convent.

The procession is led by darling little girls throwing rose petals in the street.