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.
Beyond the caves, I found Waitomo to be quiet, laid back, and relaxing. There’s a lot of natural beauty here and the tiny 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).
This travel guide to Waitomo will show you how to save money and make the most out of your trip!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Waitomo
1. See the glowworms
2. Visit Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park
3. Explore Ruakuri Cave
4. Go blackwater rafting
5. Explore Aranui Cave
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. 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.
3. Admire Mangapohue Natural Bridge
Mangapohue Natural Bridge is the main highlight on 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 high limestone arch, which spans the Mangapohue river. The arch is all that remains of an ancient cave system. The bridge is just 25km west of Waitomo. Don’t miss the Marokopa Falls while you’re here (see below).
4. Hike to Marokopa Falls
This waterfall is one of the most beautiful in all of New Zealand. It’s 35-metres 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.)
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 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. 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 Taupo crater in 186 BCE, a forest was completely buried under volcanic rock). You can also camp here for 8 NZD per night. The park is about 2 hours away from Waitomo. Admission is free.
7. Bike the Timber Trail
Located in Pureora Forest, this 85-kilometer-long 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 do the trail over two 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 50 NZD. Renting a bike for a day costs around 80 NZD (or 120 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 included at both hostels, and both hostels also have kitchens for cooking your own food. Private rooms begin at 80 NZD per night.
For those traveling with a tent, a basic plot without electricity costs around 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 expect to pay at least 120 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 60 NZD per night for a private room while an entire home or apartment costs at least 100 NZD per night.
Food – Restaurants in Waitomo are few and far between, owing to the region’s small population. A typical meal at one of the town pubs will cost around 20 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 12 NZD. There’s also pizza in both Otorhanga and Te Kuiti. For a large pizza, prices start around 13 NZD.
For a beer at the bar, expect to pay around 9 NZD. A latte costs around 5 NZD while a bottle of water costs around 2.50 NZD.
If you cook your own food, plan to spend about 70-85 NZD for a week’s supply of groceries that includes basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat or fish. 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 80-105 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 the higher end of this budget, you can do a quick glow worm walk.
On a mid-range budget of about 240 NZD per day, you can stay in a budget hotel or Airbnb, eat most meals, rent a small car for a couple of days, and enjoy a few activities such as cycling or blackwater rafting.
On a “luxury” budget of 425 NZD day or more, you can stay in a nice 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!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less. We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in NZD.
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 85 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 food – Eating out in New Zealand will always hurt your budget. It’s not cheap to eat out in the country and, frankly, there’s not 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 will be upwards of 25% higher during the summer months so avoid peak tourist season if you can!
- 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 pretty decent:
How to Get Around Waitomo
Bus – 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 will pick you up and return you to your hostel or hotel free of charge.
Bicycle – Bike rentals cost 80 NZD for a full-day rental.
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. A small car costs around 75 NZD per day.
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, sitting 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 (2°C/35°F).
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. 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.
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.
If you need emergency services, the number is 111.
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.
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 to Waitomo. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- 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.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- 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.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around New Zealand, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Waitomo Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Waitomo Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett
Auckland Island, located 285 miles south of New Zealand, is a place with year-round freezing rain, wind, and little food (but apparently, a lot of seals). Simply put, it’s not a place you want to get shipwrecked on. Yet in 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew did just that — and a few months later, on the opposite side of the island, so did the crew of the Scottish ship Invercauld. This well-written account of how the two crews survived (and didn’t survive) offers insight into leadership, camaraderie, and coming together in a crisis.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book is a parody of the 19th-century novel and is considered a modern classic. The year is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to get involved in the gold rush. When he arrives, he happens upon 12 men who have met in secret to talk about several mysterious events, including the disappearance of a wealthy man and a prostitute’s attempt to end her life. Moody is drawn into the circle, and the book soon turns into a thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked the whole way through.
Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand, by Jonathan Tindale
This one is a fun, humorous travelogue that will get you super excited about your trip. In Squashed Possums, Tindale shares his adventures (and misadventures) from a year spent exploring the lesser-explored areas of New Zealand. He makes himself a home in an abandoned caravan, and then lives out four seasons getting acquainted with the terrain — including the coldest winter in decades.
A Land of Two Halves, by Joe Bennett
After having spent ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett decides to figure out why he’s still living there. A notorious restless traveler, Bennett finds himself examining all the reasons why these two islands have captivated him for a decade — so he packs his bags and heads out on a hitchhiking adventure around the North and South Islands. His encounters along the way are an enlightening look at life in New Zealand!
Waitomo Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling New Zealand and continue planning your trip: