The Top Things to Do in Waitomo, New Zealand

See the glow-worms on an underground cave cruise in Waitomo, New Zealand
See the glow-worms on an underground cave cruise in Waitomo, New Zealand | © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Thalita Alves
9 September 2020

If you love nature, Waitomo is sure to keep you captivated. Glistening glow-worms, epic underground adventures and lush, forested trails are just some things you’ll encounter at this popular New Zealand destination. From spelunking tours to the Museum of Caves, here are seven attractions and activities that should be on your list of Waitomo must-dos.

Do a spelunking tour

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If you’re feeling adventurous, a caving tour is the ultimate thrill. There are quite a few options around, each challenging its visitors to abseil to the depths of various caves and crawl into their underground passages. If you like zip lining, the Lost World and St Benedict Caverns tours will be right up your alley; if you don’t mind getting wet and muddy, the Black Abyss tour combines spelunking and abseiling with an epic black-water rafting expedition.

See the glowworms on an underground cave cruise

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Glowworm Cave. The underground illuminations of the grottos of Waitomo are a natural wonder of New Zealand
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This is an effortless way to view New Zealand’s unique Arachnocampa luminosa glow-worms as they light up the limestone walls of the Waitomo caves. Cruises depart to the Glowworm Grotto every 30 minutes (such is their popularity) and include commentary on the culture and history of these underground passages as the boat meanders across the Waitomo River to unveil its much-sought-after luminescent showcase.

Try your hand at black-water rafting

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The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. was the first company in New Zealand to offer guided tours of this kind in 1987 and continues to be Waitomo’s main black-water rafting tour operator to this day. The Ruakuri Cave is their playground of choice; along with the aforementioned Black Abyss experience, the company also offers its original Black Labyrinth rafting tour, which allows beginners and experienced adventurers alike to float underground in the rubber tubes and leap into the cavernous cascades as they observe the galaxy of glow-worms all around them.

Check out the Waitomo Museum of Caves

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If you’re curious about the culture, history and geological makeup of Waitomo’s wonderful limestone caverns, a visit to the local museum is a must. Operated by the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre, the Museum of Caves features an array of interactive displays that allow visitors of all ages to experience the evolution of the caves for themselves, including cave crawls and multimedia displays about the area’s famous Arachnocampa luminosa glow-worms. Fossils, photographic archives and historical exhibits dedicated to cave exploration are a few other highlights to look forward to.

Hike the surrounding forests

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The Beautiful Marokopa Falls in the Tawarau Forest near Te Anga Waitomo Waikato North Island New Zealand NZ
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Waitomo’s appeal goes well beyond its subterranean gems. There’s an assortment of easy walks and challenging treks that hikers of all abilities can tap into; along with showcasing the area’s lush, native forestry, these also provide plenty of opportunities to see some epic bridges and beautiful waterfalls and to view the iconic caves from higher ground. Short walks in the area include the Marokopa Falls Walk and the Mangapohue Bridge Walk, both of which take around 20 minutes. For a longer alternative, try the Waitomo Great Walk, a guided two- to three-day journey that begins in Tawarau Forest and traverses the Tawarau Falls, Marokopa Falls and Waipuna Bridge before contouring the Waitomo Stream and descending into Waitomo Village.

Cycle the Pureora Timber Trail

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If you like the idea of pedalling across 85km (53mi) of ancient forests, grab your bike and venture southeast of Waitomo to ride the Pureora Timber Trail. As it makes its way across Pureora Forest Park, the route unveils New Zealand’s longest suspension bridges, as well as the key historical sites and ancestral Maori land that make this area so special. The full ride takes two to three days to complete, but it can be broken down into various sections suitable for beginners and intermediate cyclists.

Look for magical creatures in the Troll Cave

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A great option for the kids is to explore this family-friendly tourism attraction and go on a hunt for the endangered cave trolls, using those survival instincts to navigate Tom the troll’s underground lair. After a briefing, you’ll get to solve riddles to get through the cave and make it out to the end – or get stuck and become Tom’s dinner.

Venture into New Zealand’s longest underground cave tour

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New Zealand, North Island, Waitomo Caves, Ruakuri Cave, spiral stairs
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Along with being a prime spot for black-water rafting, the Ruakuri Cave is home to New Zealand’s longest underground cave tour. The cave is also unique in that it is entirely wheelchair-friendly; tours descend a spiralling pathway as they meander past the crystal tapestries and limestone formations that embellish this natural wonder. The sound of the rumbling waterfalls can also be heard from afar as you delve deeper underground.

Visit the Waitomo Big Bird and Miniature Animal Petting Farm

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Another family-friendly place to visit, the Waitomo Big Bird and Miniature Animal Petting Farm offers visitors a chance to see up close many otherwise antisocial big birds such as the ostrich and emu. The farm also has 18 different species of miniature animals for petting and feeding. Get close to farm animals with a miniature horse ride, or cuddle miniature alpacas, donkeys and sheep.

Take to the air with a helicopter ride to Waitomo

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Take in the scenery of the Waikato district from the air with a helicopter ride from Auckland to the Waitomo caves. Luxury travel operator Helicopter Me offers a flight from Auckland that goes straight down the North Island’s dramatic west coast beaches before turning back inland to the Waitomo caves. Flights take 50 minutes each way, and if you are including a Waitomo caves tour, the entire experience will take about three and a half hours.

Additional reporting by Bianca Ackroyd.

These recommendations were updated on September 9, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.