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’s quiet, simple, and relaxing. While it may be a small town, the real draw here is the caves. You won’t need more than two days in Waitomo unless you are going to use the town as a base to explore the region.
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Waitomo
1. See the glow worms
2. Go to Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park
3. Visit the Ruakuri Cave
4. Go blackwater rafting
5. Explore Aranui Cave
Other Things to See and Do
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1. 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, and about the local glowworms. Entry is free with most cave expeditions.
2. 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’s log sawing, explosions, and live animals including a working sheep dog and a very intelligent pig! There is also heavy audience participation, making it a pretty fun show. Tickets are 28 NZD for adults, and there are discounts available for students, seniors, and children.
3. 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. Expect to pay around 120 NZD for a rental and tour.
4. Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk
Mangapohue Natural Bridge is a highlight on the scenic drive from Waitomo Village to Marokopa. The track follows a boardwalk through an impressive limestone gorge that takes you underneath a 17 meter high limestone arch, which spans the Mangapohue Stream. It’s all that remains of an ancient cave system. As you explore, you’ll be treated to a superb view of the ceiling studded with stalactite-like formations and an excellent view back down the gorge.
5. Bike the Timber Trail
Just outside of Waitomo you can experience the spectacular views and sights of the Pureora Forest along the 53-mile long Timber Trail. The Timber Trail follows a collection of old tram lines and travels over large suspension bridges between the relatively rough terrain. There are a number of starting points to the trail, riders can choose to start from around Te Kuiti, Ongarue or from the Piropiro campsite for day riders. Just keep in mind that the trail does not complete in a loop, so if you want to just explore for a day you’ll have to circle back to where you started. There is a shuttle operating between the main stops along the trail, so you will have to arrange pick-up times with the shuttle. Shuttle tickets are 40 NZD.
6. Visit Pureora Forest Park
This huge wilderness is brimming with life: native trees, birdlife, bats, and massive trees can all be found here. It’s a majestic place to explore and marvel and the towering trees, some of which reaching heights of over 60 meters. There is even a buried forest here, a consequence of the Taupo eruption. If you want to get out into nature, this is a good place to start!
7. See the Marokopa Falls
This waterfall is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the whole of New Zealand. It’s 35-metres tall and located in the Tawarau Forest (near the Waitomo glowworm cave). The trail is only around 20 minutes, but it’s a very pretty stroll and worth checking out if you need to stretch your legs.
Budget hotel prices – Prices vary by season, but average around 110 NZD for a double room. Most budget hotels include free WiFi and some even include access to a kitchen. Very few offer free breakfast. Airbnb is limited here with a private room coasting around 45 NZD per night and an entire home or apartment around 100 NZD per night.
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 around 20 NZD. If you cook your own food, plan to spend about 65-80 NZD for a week’s supply of groceries. For a beer at the bar, expect to pay around 8 NZD.
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. If you want to arrange your own shuttle to the caves, expect to pay around 13 NZD each way. Bike rentals are available in the city, with full-day rentals costing around 40 NZD.
Suggested daily budget
70 NZD / $50 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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.
- Buy a combo upgrade to see the caves – If you combine multiple cave tickets, you’ll save a ton of cash. For example, the Aranui Cave is 50 NZD regular price, but when combined with the regular ticket, it’s just 39 NZD.
- 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!
- Cook your food – Eating out will always hurt your budget, so cook your own meals to keep your wallet intact!
- 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. You’ll also get some valuable insight into the area from a local — and that is priceless!
- Avoid the high season – Prices will be higher during the summer months (and the beaches will be packed) so avoid peak tourist season if you can!
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