A Comprehensive Travel Guide to Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo is ultimate New Zealand's adventure destination. Let's explore underground caves famous for glowworms or blackwater rafting. Read our comprehensive travel guide on the best things to do in Waitomo and its surroundings, tips on how to visit Waitomo, how much things cost, what to pack, and how to enjoy the place on a budget.
It is hard to compete with New Zealand when it comes to natural beauty. But the exceptionality of the country does not end above ground, because one of the most amazing places New Zealand has to offer to its visitors is located underground.
We are now talking about Waitomo Caves, a unique cave underground system famous for luminescent glowworms and adrenaline activities.
If you are thinking whether you should put Waitomo Caves on your New Zealand itinerary, you should know two things. One, even if there was only one cave, it still would have been worthwhile to travel to the area, and this brings us to the second point. There is not only one cave. There are more than 300 limestone caves in the area, and although not all of them are for sure accessible, you can see here incredible formations, and not only that.
Despite its small size, Waitomo village is a great place to base yourself for a couple of days as you can explore even more caves around Waitomo, spectacular waterfalls or do bush walks, which will introduce you to New Zealand's native forest.
Visiting the area around Waitomo can be a completely budget-friendly activity, but you can also spend here several hundred dollars, it only depends on your priorities and things you want to see and do, so it cannot surprise you that the destination is popular among both backpackers and even travelers who have more money in their pockets.
The name Waitomo comes from the Maori language, and it means water passing through a hole, and it perfectly describes the place.
Let's dive in the world of stalagmites and stalactites, the world where rivers are rushing beneath rocks, the world, where by entering the hole you will emerge in a completely different universe made of darkness, where paths are illuminated by a blueish light of glowworms, and where only the sound of constantly dripping water coming from above will disturb the silence.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CAVES IN WAITOMO AREA
The history of all major caves (and even the smaller ones) is closely connected with Maori people, who have been living in the area or passing by the area for centuries.
Maori for sure knew about the existence of the caves, but either did not dare to enter them or did not think of revealing the secret to the outside world. Both Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave were discovered by Maori people when they were hunting in the place by accident, the most famous Waitomo Glowworm Cave was known of as well, but it was not until the end of the 19th century when a Maori Chief altogether with an English surveyor entered the cave and were absolutely stunned by what they found.
All caves were open to the public pretty soon, with Maori acting like guides, but the caves were soon taken over by the government who eventually returned the caves to the original owners almost 100 years later.
It is interesting that even until today, many descendants of the original owners work in the caves as guides, and show tourists what their ancestors discovered and share legends from those times.
IS IT NECESSARY TO BOOK WAITOMO EXPERIENCE AHEAD
In case you plan on visiting Waitomo during the summer season between December and February, it is absolutely necessary to reserve your spot on guided tours (it is not possible to walk in the caves on own) well in advance.
Although most of the classic guided tours in the caves run every thirty minutes, in case you are traveling on a strict schedule, you should not underestimate it and make your reservation.
When not making your booking like us, you can end up waiting before the entrance for several hours.
Adventure activities such as tubing are much more limited, as they do not run that often, so it is a must to make a reservation, in case rafting or tubing in the caves is the main reason why you travel in the area.
Outside the main season, it is much more pleasant to travel in New Zealand as tourist destinations are not that crowded, and you will be more flexible when reserving your spot.
It is possible to reserve tickets via links below. In case you want to visit more caves in one day, head to the official site where you can buy a combo ticket.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave Boat Tour | The boat tour is amazing as the glowworms illuminate the ceiling of the cave, it is forbidden to take photos, and the experience thanks to it is absolutely peaceful.
Waitomo Caves 3-Hour Tour | In case you want to extend your experience, there is an option to stay even longer in the cave with fewer people.
Photography Waitomo Caves Tour | As taking pictures with a large camera is not allowed in the main cave, there is an option to reserve a photography tour designed for all avid photographers.
Aranui Cave | Spectacular stalagmites and stalactites can be seen in Aranui Cave.
Ruakuri Cave | The entrance to Ruakuri Cave is very unusual, and it should not be missed.
Best adventure activities in Waitomo are the following:
VISITING WAITOMO ON A BUDGET
Even us, who traveled in New Zealand on a very low budget, decided to pay the entrance to all three major caves, Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Ruakuri Cave, and Aranui Cave, and we did not regret that decision, as visiting Waitomo is since then very high on the list of the top places we've ever visited.
But in case you are not willing to pay for the underground experience, there are several things to do near Waitomo completely for free. In case you want to go inside the cave, only short driving distance from Waitomo is Piripiri Cave, and although we are not saying it is as spectacular as the highlights in the area, it will give you an introduction to the destination and idea how the terrain near Waitomo looks like.
Other budget-friendly things to do near Waitomo are for example beautiful Marokopa Falls, Mangapohue Natural Bridge or a short path Ruakuri Bush Walk.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN WAITOMO
Of course, the main reason for visiting Waitomo is the cave carrying the same name famous for shiny glowworms, but the area around Waitomo is not rich only on caves, but also on waterfalls and beautiful forest.
Discover with us the best things you can do in Waitomo.
WAITOMO GLOWWORM CAVE
The absolute highlight and a must-visit place in Waitomo is Waitomo Glowworm Cave, and it is the main reason why so many travelers yearly visit the small village on New Zealand's North Island.
Although glowworms can be found in other caves in the area as well, you will get the most fascinating experience right here.
There are many favorite activities to do in Waitomo Glowworm Cave, but the most popular ones are either peaceful boat tour and the other one adrenaline rafting in the caves, which is often rated among the top adrenaline activities in New Zealand.
Because of our budget, we opted for the boat tour, and it was one of the most captivating experiences we had in the country, as the cave was absolutely quiet, pitch dark, it was not allowed to take pictures, and we were sitting with others on a small boat gliding silently on a dark underground lake, watching illuminated walls and ceiling by glowworms resembling night sky.
Are you wondering what are those glowworms who create the spectacular show?
Glowworms are actually larvae and their snot and waste emit a phosphorescent glow which attracts their prey (usually small flies) who end up stuck up in larvae fibers - that does not sound that romantic, right?
The entrance to Ruakuri Cave is anything but dull. As the original entrance was many years ago used by Maori people as a burial site, the new entrance bypasses the significant and sacred place for the native people.
The spiral-like stairways lit by spotlights is really awe-inspiring, and it gave us a feeling like we were descending to a secret tomb.
Once we reached the ground, we walked winding passageways while our guide was pointing out fascinatingly shaped stalactites and stalagmites, millions of years old. As long-time ago the cave was under sea level, it is possible to see fossils on the walls, but the highlight here is walk through a narrow passageway in complete darkness when the cave complex is illuminated only by glowworms.
Unlike in Waitomo Glowworm Cave, you can take as many photos in Ruakuri Cave as you like, but do not distract larvae by flash.
Aranui Cave is the smallest cave out of the three most visited ones, but it is still worth visiting.
The guided tour starts with a short walk via the forest, and our guide was so enthusiastic, so knowledgeable, and he pointed out all medicinal plants along the path and their use, that he made the tour very interesting even before we entered the cave.
The Aranui Cave's environment is fragile, so from a distance, we admired pink, white and brown stalactites and stalagmites.
There is no river running in Aranui Cave, but the main attraction here is a chamber with a high ceiling featuring magnificent limestone formations.
RUAKURI BUSH WALK
Short, but rewarding trek in nature, Ruakuri Bush Walk takes only fifty minutes to finish, but during this time you will enjoy trekking along the river, cross many boardwalks, wooden stairs, get through Ruakuri Natural Tunnel, many small caves, and you will even find here glowworms.
It is definitely perfect budget activity in case you want to spend your time actively, want to get a sample of the best things the area has to offer, and do not want to spend too much money on it.
After only a short and scenic drive from Waitomo, you will stumble across a sign revealing that there are Marokopa Falls nearby.
Get off your car, and walk for approximately ten minutes via native tawa and nikau forest to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand. After rain Marokopa Falls are truly powerful, but even when conditions are dry you should wear a waterproof jacket, and a dry sack for your camera because you will get misty with the waterfall.
Marokopa Falls is 35 meters high, so it is really worth it the thirty minutes drive from Waitomo.
In case you do not want to pay for visiting Waitomo Glowworm Cave or for other two cave systems with paid access, you will have at least more time to explore Te Anga Road, where you will also find Piripiri Cave.
Grab a torch or headlamp, and go inside a small cave which is one of many limestone caves spread in the area.
MANGAPOHUE NATURAL BRIDGE
Te Anga Road is really spectacular, as it won't take you only to Marokopa Falls and Piripiri Cave, but also to Mangapohue Natural Bridge, which is only 25 kilometers from Waitomo village.
The ten-minute walk (one way) will take you across several bridge crossings and deep gorges before you will emerge under awe-inspiring 17 meters high natural limestone bridge formed by two rock arches.
Mangapohue Natural Bridge is a showcase of what was left from the ancient cave system.
Places like this won't ever stop amaze us how powerful and stunning nature is.
HOW MUCH TIME YOU NEED TO SPEND IN WAITOMO
If you are pressed for time, the visit of Waitomo can be easily done in a half-day, in case you will buy a ticket for classic guided tours into the caves or if you will solely go for a blackwater rafting early in the morning.
During such a short period you won't have a chance to do some of the best above-ground activities, but you will get a quick but intense example of why is Waitomo such a popular place.
In case your itinerary allows you to spend a bit more time in Waitomo, do not hesitate to reserve your room for two nights, and thoroughly discover what this first-class destination has to offer.
WHERE TO STAY IN WAITOMO
Waitomo is a small village where it is hard to find accommodation, especially between December and March, so you must either reserve your room well ahead or spend a night a bit farther from Waitomo, which should not be a problem, in case you are traveling by car.
We've handpicked three best hotels in the area for every type of traveler.
Budget | Kiwipaka Waitomo - This hostel has everything a backpacker needs. Clean rooms, large communal kitchen, and location close to all adventure activities in the area.
Mid-range | Waitomo Caves Hotel - Lovely hotel overlooking Waitomo village offers great value for your money.
Luxury | Redwood Lodge - Excellent accommodation short drive from Waitomo features a hot tub, fitness center, and outdoor pool, which makes it for one of the best hotels in the area.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING WAITOMO CAVES
What to pack for visiting Waitomo Caves greatly depends on the season when you are visiting the area and on the activity, you want to do.
You can expect quite warm conditions during summer from December to March, and icy conditions between June and September. If you plan on doing tubing, you will get a wet suit, so generally, you need either swimsuit or shorts and t-shirt you do not mind getting wet.
Here are several essential items you should pack with you for Waitomo Caves.
HOW TO GET TO WAITOMO
Waitomo village is on New Zealand's North Island, and although it lies on a side road number 37, it is easily accessible from either Rotorua or Hamilton, two biggest and also heavily visited cities by both locals and international travelers.
Although it is for sure much easier to get to Waitomo if you have a rental car because tubing in Waitomo Caves is a must-do activity among backpackers, you won't have a problem to get to the village even without own car as you can take one of many buses heading to the area every day, for example from Rotorua or Auckland.
In case you are short on time or simply prefer guided tours where everything is arranged in advance for you, you can reserve either a tour combining the visit of Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves from Rotorua or you can even take a tour which in one day squeeze the visit of Rotorua, Hobbiton, and Waitomo Caves from Auckland.
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