I’ve written several posts about our trip to Costa Rica this winter. It’s hard to say forcefully enough what a beautiful country it is and how exceptionally friendly it is for families. Because it was a rewards-points-financed vacation, we stayed at more resort-y places than we otherwise would have. But Tulemar is basically the perfect resort for people who don’t like resorts.
The Gist of It
Tulemar is ranked the #2 resort in the world for families on Trip Advisor, and for good reason. It is an incredible combination of a full service hotel with a much more private and natural setting than a big resort, as well as more space. The staff are lovely and, like everywhere else we’ve been in Costa Rica, great with children. The beach is glorious and the wildlife is better than what you’ll see while chasing tired small people around Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a few things that were a challenge with a toddler, but for this region and this type of tourism, it is definitely the best place out there.
Tulemar Bungalows were built in the 1980s on a 33 acre property overlooking one of the secluded crescent shaped beaches typical of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
They are in the process of updating the bungalows with microwaves and full fridges and flat screens (though why anyone would stay here and want to watch TV I can’t imagine, but regardless it’s tastefully done). The bungalows are the most economical option of the properties that are part of Tulemar/Buena Vista, though still not cheap (we did the trip on Barclay Arrival reward points and stayed in Bungalow #114).
The shared amenities of the community are great. There’s the main pool and restaurant, side by side. That pool is often busier and not as good for families as there is no shallow end. But there is a family pool a short walk downhill. Or you can call the shuttle, which will take you anywhere at any time (and the shuttle drivers are wonderful with kids). The family infinity pool has a couple of fun features including a waterfall, a separate toddler pool, and ledges most of the way around. There were other families there every time we visited, which was nice since we were all ready to exchange children by then.
Mostly, though, the ocean. We didn’t even visit the pools until we’d spent two full days at the beach and were tired. I’ll get to the beach in a minute. You can walk down but do not try to take a stroller or walk the real little ones, it’s steep and too long for them. But the shuttle will pick you up and drop you off. You can also order food on the courtesy phones from any of the pools, your room, or the beach and they’ll bring it down. On the weekends they set up a restaurant down at the beach and you can eat and watch the sunset. It was a hot mess with our toddler but no one cared and we had a lovely time. The food is great.
The bungalows are awesome for families. There’s a trundle bed in the living room, enough room for kids to spread out their crap, and the bedroom has plenty of space. The spaciousness and view are where Tulemar beats even the nicest rooms of a fancy resort, hands down. Monkeys climb on the roof (and might try to come right in the window if you open it) and birds perch on trees right outside. The look out over the ocean is breath taking.
A few things to look out for with kids. If you are anything like us and don’t let housekeeping in until you can’t live in the room any longer, and then have to clean and put the furniture back in place before they can come in, well you can’t do that here. Because you can’t throw toilet paper in the toilet (you can in big, new installations, but that’s an exception, this is the norm), you really do want them to come every day because you don’t want to be in a tropical forest with dirty toilet paper ripening for more than a day.
If you have a small toddler, there are a few inconveniences, but none of them were that big a deal. The beds are attached to the headboard and can’t be moved. I’m sure hotel managers don’t want to think about people pulling the furniture around, but if you’ve traveled with small children you know that making a big family bed is sometimes the only way to sleep. There are also no high places in the bungalows. The counters are low everywhere. So when your toddler decides that dumping the potty trash is awesome, you may find yourself setting it up on top of the bathroom light array to get it out of reach. Just remember to get it back down before you need to use the bathroom :).
Finally, if you have a child that gets up horribly early in the morning, there just isn’t anywhere to go to let everyone else keep sleeping. It’s dark and you are in the middle of the jungle. People will be at the restaurant doing stuff by 6am and you could watch them and get in their way, which they will be very generous and sweet about, but what will you do for the 2 hours before that? Again, not a big deal but different from staying in a hotel where there are things open and happening 24 hours a day.
Basically, Tulemar is wonderful for families, but just a smidge adventurous with a very small toddler. It’s in the mountains on the side of a cliff, so everything is climbing up and down. You will be carrying the toddler a lot and they will fall a lot. We don’t care about the falling. The carrying was also no big deal for our friends with normal sized children, but since our 20 month is the size of a 3.5 year old, we called the shuttle a lot more than we might have otherwise. Ultimately, there are very few places in the world besides your own home (if that, let’s be honest) that are any kind of comfortable to be in with baby-zilla.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. The beach. Oh my god the beach. The physical beach is amazing but Tulemar also makes it easy to enjoy with kids while still feeling secluded. There is alabaster and jade and agate all over the sand. Every available shell has a hermit crab in it and they flow along the sand, getting out of your way, like a little scuttling wave. The kids were happy for several days just chasing crabs.
There’s a neat circle of rocks that makes a wading pool protected from the waves at low tide. I thought they built it for kids, and was very impressed. But I did some digging and it turns out this land was a Quepoa indigenous settlement about 950 years ago and the pools are turtle traps that have been there nearly a millenium.
Parts of the beach are shaded long into the morning, which let us stay out much longer than we otherwise could have. The water is warm and wonderful. There are baby toys, boogie boards, towels and chairs, kayaks for guest use–all free. The rip tide is real and the waves are unpredictable, a feature of this entire coastal area. It’s a big deal, and easy to be overconfident. But if you stay vigilant it’s fine. We took our fearless 20 month old out past the breakers and jumped the swells while he cackled. Our 5 year old wore a puddle jumper and hung out in the surf and breaking waves, hooting and yelling for hours. Luckily we were nearly alone on the beach most of the time.
All the wildlife you can see (if you are lucky) in Manuel Antonio, you can see at Tulemar. If you have little kids, skip the park and just hang out at Tulemar beach. The gardeners and staff would come get us to show us howler monkeys, sloths, and other critters. They are as knowledgeable and the pace is much more enjoyable. We had an amazing time and would go again in a heartbeat!