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 beautiful and popular natural wonders.
Travelers come here to explore the region’s underground caves, abseil in them, and see the famous glowworms (which are one of the coolest things to see in the entire country) that inhabit their ceilings. They’re simply breathtaking and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Beyond the caves, I found Waitomo to be quiet, laid back, and relaxing. There’s a lot of natural beauty here and the town is really small. But you won’t need more than two days here unless you are going to use the town as a base to explore the wider region (then you’ll of course need more). It’s just a chill spot for a quick visit before moving on.
This travel guide to Waitomo will help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most of your time here!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Waitomo
1. See the glowworms
Waitomo’s underground caves are the primary reason to come to this area. They’re full of a species of glowworm that is native only to New Zealand (they’re actually fly larvae that emit a bioluminescent glow). You can walk, abseil, and float down an underground river to see them. A 45-minute rafting trip is the standard visit, but if you want to go abseiling (also known as rappelling) there’s a five-hour option too. Prices start at 55 NZD for a boat tour and 195 NZD for extended tours with abseiling.
2. Visit Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park
This wildlife sanctuary is a great place to see New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi (which is flightless and endemic to New Zealand), as well as other wildlife from the area including weka and kea (a weka is a brown flightless bird, about the size of a chicken and a kea is a large olive-green parrot). In addition to birds, you can also see the tuatara, the last remaining species of an ancient order of reptiles that walked the earth over 250 million years ago. Admission is 26 NZD.
3. Explore Ruakuri Cave
Ruakuri was discovered by the local Maori 500 years ago. It takes its name from the wild dogs that made their home at the entrance and is still a spiritually significant place for Maori. Admire the limestone and crystal formations, underground rivers, and waterfalls, and get up close to glowworms. The cave takes about 75 minutes to explore (it’s the longest in the country). Guided tours are 79 NZD.
4. Hike to Marokopa Falls
This waterfall is one of the most beautiful in all of New Zealand. It’s 35-meters (114 feet) tall and located in the Tawarau Forest (near the Waitomo glowworm cave). The trail takes only around 20 minutes. Bring a picnic and a book and spend a couple of hours relaxing. It’s free too. Note: The viewing platform is indefinitely closed due to its damaged condition, but you can still get fairly close and see the waterfall.
5. Attend the Kiwi Culture Show
This countryside theater has a recurring, hour-long family-friendly performance that showcases local culture and history. There are log sawing and sheep shearing demonstrations, a sheepdog performance, and even a performance by a very intelligent pig! There’s heavy audience participation, making it a fun and interactive show for children and families. Tickets are 28 NZD. Note: The performance is temporarily suspended due to COVID-19.
Other Things to See and Do in Waitomo
1. Visit the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre
This small museum highlights the history of Waitomo’s caves and glowworms. You’ll learn about the different ecosystems, how caves form, the flora and fauna that thrive underground, and why there are so many “glowworms.” They also have tons of information about all the caves and tours you can book. Admission is 5 NZD and free with most cave tours.
2. Explore Aranui Cave
This is one of the smaller caves in the region and is often overlooked. It’s a dry cave so there isn’t as much living here as in the other caves. However, you’ll see gorgeous limestone formations as well as stalactites and stalagmites. Tickets are 55 NZD for adults for a one-hour tour.
3. Admire Mangapohue Natural Bridge
Mangapohue Natural Bridge is the main highlight of the one-hour scenic drive from Waitomo to Marokopa. The track follows a boardwalk through an impressive limestone gorge that takes you underneath a 17-meter (55-foot) high limestone arch, which spans the Mangapohue river. The arch is all that remains of an ancient cave system. The bridge is just 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Waitomo. Don’t miss the Marokopa Falls while you’re here (mentioned above).
4. Go blackwater rafting
Black water rafting involves riding an inner tube down an underground river. You’ll swim, crawl through narrow passages, jump off waterfalls, and rappel down cliffs. It’s super fun! It’s 155 NZD for the tamer three-hour tour and 265 NZD for the five-hour, more involved tour.
5. See the Piripiri Caves
If you’re heading to the Marokopa Falls or Mangapohue Natural Bridge, make a quick stop at the Piripiri Caves. It’s a small limestone cave where you’ll see all kinds of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It won’t take more than 10 minutes to see but it’s a neat stop to build into an existing itinerary. It’s one of the few free caves in the area. Bring a flashlight as it will be dark.
6. Explore Pureora Forest Park
This huge park spans over 760 square kilometers (290 square miles) and is teeming with wildlife. Established in 1978 after pressure from anti-logging activists, it’s a majestic place to explore and marvel and the towering trees, including the giant totara, which reaches heights of over 60 meters (197 feet). There are several hiking and biking trails and there’s even a buried forest here, a consequence of the Taupo eruption (following the eruption of the Taupo crater in 186 BCE, a forest was completely buried under volcanic rock). You can also camp here for 10 NZD per night. The park is about two hours away from Waitomo. Admission is free.
7. Bike the Timber Trail
Located in Pureora Forest, this 85-kilometer-long (53-mile) trail is perfect for biking. The trail follows a collection of old tram lines and large suspension bridges. There are three main starting points to the trail (Pureora Village, Kokomiko Rd, Ongarue) and most people bike the trail over two days (walking takes 3-4 days). It doesn’t complete in a loop, so you’ll have to circle back to where you started. There is a shuttle operating between the main stops so you can arrange pick-up times based on how far you plan to go. Shuttle tickets are 55 NZD. Renting a bike for a day costs around 70 NZD (or 120 NZD for two days). E-bikes are 120 NZD for one day or 200 NZD for two days.
For more information on other destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides:
Waitomo Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There are only two hostels here so be sure to book in advance. Beds in a 4-6-bed dorm cost around 35 NZD per night. Free Wi-Fi and free parking are included at both hostels, and both hostels also have kitchens for cooking your own food. Private rooms begin at 80 NZD per night for a single room and 150 NZD for a double with an ensuite bathroom. Prices don’t really vary with the season.
For those traveling with a tent, a basic plot without electricity costs 10-15 NZD per night. If you have a camper van, be sure to download the Campermates app, which lets you find nearby campsites, gas stations, and dump stations.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotel and motel prices vary by season but, as there aren’t a lot of options in the area, expect to pay at least 150 NZD for a double room. Most budget hotels include free Wi-Fi and some even include access to a kitchen. Very few offer free breakfast.
Airbnb is limited here. Expect to pay at least 75 NZD per night for a private room while an entire home or apartment costs at least 150 NZD per night. Prices double if you don’t book early.
Food – Expect a lot of seafood during your visit (New Zealand is an island after all), including crayfish, muscles, oysters, and snapper. Roasted lamb, fish and chips, and burgers are also common favorites. If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to try hokey pokey ice cream, which is caramelized honeycomb drizzled over ice cream.
In Waitomo, restaurants are few and far between, owing to the region’s small population. A typical meal at one of the town pubs costs around 20-25 NZD. Expect common New Zealand favorites like lamb, meat pies, fish and chips, and seafood.
Fast food options are limited here (there’s a McDonald’s and a Subway in nearby Otorohanga). A combo meal costs around 13 NZD. There’s also pizza in both Otorohanga and Te Kuiti. For a large takeout pizza, prices start around 15-18 NZD.
For a beer at a restaurant, expect to pay around 10-12 NZD. A latte costs around 5 NZD while a bottle of water costs around 2.50 NZD.
If you choose to cook your food, plan to spend around 75-85 NZD per week on basic foodstuffs like rice, pasta, vegetables, eggs, chicken, and some meat. Stock up on groceries in Otorohanga or Te Kuiti (two nearby towns) as the shopping options around the caves are extremely limited.
Backpacking Waitomo Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Waitomo, my suggested budget is 75 NZD per day. This assumes you’re staying in a hostel or camping, limiting your drinking, cooking all of your meals, sticking to cheap or free activities (like hiking and free caves), and not renting a vehicle.
On a mid-range budget of about 235 NZD per day, you can stay in a private room in a hostel or Airbnb, eat out for most meals, rent a small car for a couple of days, enjoy a few drinks, and do a few paid activities such as cycling or blackwater rafting.
On a “luxury” budget of 380 NZD per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, take some organized tours, rent a car for more days, drink more, and enjoy all the attractions Waitomo has to offer. This is just the ground floor for luxury though — the sky is the limit!
Waitomo Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Unless you plan on doing a lot of adventure tours in Waitomo, you can easily stick to a budget here. There’s not a lot to do outside the caves that costs a lot of money. Here are some additional tips to help you save money in Waitomo:
- Take the quick glowworm 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.
- Buy a combo upgrade to see the caves – If you combine multiple cave tickets, you’ll save some money. For example, the Aranui Cave is 55 NZD regular price, but when combined with the Waitomo glowworm caves ticket, it’s 89 NZD for both. Triple combos will save you even more.
- Find deals at bookme.co.nz – If you’re flexible with your dates, this website often has great deals. You can find blackwater rafting tours for up to 50% off! Also, try grabone.co.nz for more deals.
- Cook your own food – Eating out in New Zealand will always hurt your budget. It’s not cheap to eat out in the country and, frankly, there aren’t a lot of great restaurants in this area. If you’re on a budget, save your money and cook your own meals instead.
- Stay with a local – While there are not many Couchsurfing hosts available in the area there are still some. Try staying with a local to cut down on your accommodation costs.
- Avoid the high season – Prices are upwards of 25% higher during the summer months so avoid peak tourist season if you can!
- Get a temporary job – If you’re running low on money and still have plenty of time left in New Zealand, check Backpackerboard.co.nz for temporary paying gigs.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water in New Zealand is safe to drink so bring a water bottle with you to save money. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can always be sure your water is clean and safe!
Where to Stay in Waitomo
There are only two hostels in Waitomo. Both are fun, social, and affordable:
How to Get Around Waitomo
Public transportation – There are no public buses in Waitomo (there are intercity buses that make stops here, however). You can walk most places though. Expect to pay around 20 NZD for a one-hour bus to Hamilton (one of the larger cities nearby).
Shuttle – Most organized tours pick you up and return you to your hostel or hotel free of charge.
Bike rental – Bike rentals cost 70 NZD for a full-day rental for a classic mountain bike and 120 per day for an e-bike.
Taxis – Unfortunately, there are no taxis or ride-shares (like Uber) in Waitomo. The town is too small.
Car rental – Renting a car is the best way to explore the region as public transportation is non-existent. There are no car rental offices in Waitomo, but you’ll probably be arriving here by car from elsewhere anyway. Car rentals throughout New Zealand are 35-55 NZD, with prices getting cheaper for multi-day rentals.
For the best rental car prices, use Discover Cars
When to Go to Waitomo
It’s best to visit Waitomo in the summer, from December to March (remember we’re in the southern hemisphere). It’s peak tourist season, however, the weather is perfect, with daily highs around 22°C (71°F). If you’re going to be rafting or going in the water, the warmer temperatures will make your experience much more pleasant.
In the winter, it can get really cold in the caves, dropping down to 2°C (35°F), making it not an ideal time to visit if caving is your priority.
The shoulder seasons (spring/autumn) are a good time to visit if you’re on a budget as prices will be a little cheaper. The weather won’t be as nice but it will still be temperate!
How to Stay Safe in Waitomo
Waitomo is very safe to backpack and travel — even for solo travelers and solo female travelers. Petty crime is rare so, while you’ll still want to avoid leaving valuables out, you can relax here without constantly being on guard.
Caving is quite safe too. Unless you have real issues with claustrophobia, you won’t face safety issues in the caves.
As earthquakes and tsunamis do occur in New Zealand, consider downloading the Hazard App from the Red Cross. It has all kinds of advice and tips for natural disasters and will also send out warnings and notifications should a disaster occur.
If you rent a car, don’t leave any valuables in it while hiking or camping overnight. Car break-ins are rare but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Solo female travelers should feel safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.).
If you’re worried about travel scams, you can read about common travel scams to avoid here. There aren’t many in New Zealand though.
If you do experience an emergency, dial 111 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. Make copies of your important documents, like your passport. Forward your itinerary along to friends or family so they’ll know where you are.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance, especially if you’re participating in any adventure activities. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancelations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Waitomo Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- bookme.co.nz – You’ll get some really good last minute deals and discounts on this website! Just select what area you’re traveling in, and see what activities are on sale.
- treatme.co.nz – The locals use this website to find discount hotels, restaurants, and tours. You can save up to 50% off things like catamaran sailing lessons or three-course dinners.
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
Waitomo Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling in New Zealand and continue planning your trip: