More than 30 million years after Waitomo first rose from the ocean floor, its unique underground limestone formations stand out as one of New Zealand’s most inspiring and popular natural wonders. Visitors come here to explore the underground caves and see the famous glowworms (which aren’t really worms at all) as they float through underground rivers. I really liked the town – it was quiet, simple, and relaxing.
Hostel prices – Dorm rooms cost between $20-25 USD per night while private rooms begin at $50 USD for a single or $60 USD for a double.
Budget hotel prices – Prices vary by season, but average around $75 USD for a double room.
Average cost of food – There aren’t many high-end restaurants in the city, so eating in Waitomo is pretty inexpensive. A typical meal at one of the town pubs will cost you between $10-15 USD. If you cook your food, plan to spend about $35-50 USD for a week’s supply of groceries.
Transportation costs – There are several bus options to take you between the various caves. Most organized tours will pick you up and return you to your hostel or hotel.
Money Saving Tips
Take the quick tour – You can take a guided walk through one of the smaller glowworm caves for around half the price of a full, multi-hour tour. The walk lasts an hour and, while not as exciting as the caving adventure, you’ll still see plenty of glowworms.
Top Things to See and Do
See the glow worms – Definitely one of the coolest things to do while in New Zealand, the Waitomo glow worm cave is touristy but lives up to that hype. It’s amazing as you walk or abseil down into darkness and float down the river while staring up at caverns covered in the glow of the worms hanging from above. The three-hour rafting trip is long enough to enable you enjoy the caves, but if you like to abseil, consider the longer, five-hour trip. There are a number of companies offering tours.
Go to Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park – Oto’s main attraction is the kiwi house where you have the opportunity to see New Zealand’s national bird as well as other wildlife from the area.
Visit the Ruakuri Cave – Ruakuri was first discovered by the local Maori between 400 and 500 years ago. It takes its name from the wild dogs that made their home in the cave entrance. The cave entrance was used by Maori as a burial ground (wahi tapu). It has just reopened to the public after being closed for 18 years.
Learn something at the Museum of Caves – If you are interested in story behind all the caving and glowworms, this museum will teach you. Learn about the difference in ecosystems, how caves form and thrive, as well as about the local glowworms. Entry is free with most expeditions.
Trek through Altura Gardens & Wildlife Park – This five acre park is home to more than 85 species of birds, and a number of various animals, some of which you can touch or interact with. Consider taking the horse trek to cover more ground.
Attend the Kiwi Culture Show – This countryside-style theater has a recurring, hour-long skit that showcases local culture, humor, and everything in between. There is also heavy audience participation.
Watch animals being shaved at The Shearing Shed – This shed is home to a number of Angora rabbits. Every day, just after the lunch hour, you watch them get shaved so their fur can be used for wool products. I was a little uncomfortable watching this happen, but some people really enjoyed it. The gift store is full of Angora products. It’s located on the way into town.
Explore Aranui Cave – This is one of the smaller caves in the system, and is often overlooked by travelers. Still, it has an impressive amount of limestone formations that make it unique.
Go Black Water Rafting – Unlike whitewater rafting, black water rafting is tubing that takes places in caves. It’s an alternative to abseiling if you’re afraid of heights but still want a special cave experience. These tours go through Ruakuri Cave, and vary in price according to the type of package that you choose.
Rent a canoe – Once you’ve gotten your cave fix, consider seeing some of the surrounding rivers by renting a canoe. Another option is to go on a whitewater kayaking tour in the area.