Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand

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If you’ve been to New Zealand, you’ve probably heard of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. It’s an attraction on the North Island of New Zealand, known for its population of glowworms, which are found only in New Zealand. At the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, you board a small boat and get up close and personal with thousands of bugs.

Being inside an enclosed space with thousands of bugs isn’t an idea I cherish, especially since the glowworm isn’t a particularly attractive bug, but you shouldn’t let that deter you from floating through the glowworm cave at Waitomo. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done on vacation.

The illumination of the glowworms in the cave
The illumination of the glowworms in the cave (Photo by Flickr User JC Merriman)

Imagine floating silently along on the slow-moving current, though a pitch-black cave, with thousands of glowing lights sparking above your head like a million stars.  All you can really see is the illumination of the glowworms. The cave in the grotto is completely dark, with no light entering.

That’s why the glowworms like it there so much. If you’re afraid of the dark, this might not be the tour for you! But if you can handle not knowing what’s happening around you and allow the tour guide to weave you through the cave, then you’ll be rewarded with one of the coolest experiences ever.

Waitomo glowworm caves entrance

About the Waitomo Caves

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were first explored in 1887 by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace. They knew the cave existed, but no one had gone in before, so they crafted a makeshift boat and used candlelight to light their way into the unknown.

It wasn’t long before they found the glowworm grotto and recognized an opportunity. The Waitomo caves have been open to tourists ever since. Aside from the main glowworm cave, there are a few other underground labyrinths to see.

About the Glowworms

We kept the gross part for last. If you want to learn more about the glowworms, then keep reading! The glowworm might not be an attractive bug, but it is an interesting one. It’s part of the gnat family and its lifespan is rather short.

The eggs hatch into a larva — the stage where the insect spends the majority of its life (about 6-12 months). According to Wikipedia, “During this stage, it spins a nest out of silk on the ceiling of the cave and then hangs down as many as 70 threads of silk (called snares) from around the nest, each up to 30 or 40cm long and holding droplets of mucus.”

The glowing occurs as a way for the larva to attract prey into the snare. A hungry larva glows brighter than one which has just eaten. Once the larva transforms into an adult, it uses its illumination skills to attract a mate. And the cycle continues.

Inside the glowworm grotto
Inside the glowworm grotto (Photo by Flickr user Opticoverload)

Visiting the Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Visiting the caves is easy. Tours are given every half hour daily from 9am-5pm and take about 45 minutes. They’ll give you some minor instructions, then lead you down to the entrance of the cave and into an awaiting boat.

Then you’ll spend the next 30 minutes floating quietly through the cave, admiring the handiwork of the glowworm before drifting out the other side and back onto dry land.

The cost is $55 NZD for adults. There are group and family tickets. You can book your tickets ahead of time on the official website. There are two other caves to explore as well, so you can combine these others with the main one to see them all.

Rafting with the Black Water Rafting Co.
Rafting with the Black Water Rafting Co. (Photo by Flickr User Todd)

If you’re up for another adventure, you can join a black-water rafting trip through the Ruakuri cave, where you’ll have the chance to “abseil, weave, jump, climb, and float through a glowworm-studded subterranean wonderland at Waitomo Caves”.

Aranui Cave

Nick & Laura in Aranui Cave
Nick & Laura in Aranui Cave

The Aranui cave was formed by an earthquake that created a rift in the soil above, allowing rainwater to seek into the caves below and form stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and other, colorful decorative formations.

This cave is the smallest and it doesn’t have a body of water inside, so you won’t find any glowworms there, but it is most impressive cave at Waitomo. The tour of the Aranui cave takes about an hour and ends with a short walk through the forest.

Ruakuri Cave

A stalagmite in the Waitomo Caves
A stalagmite in the Waitomo Caves

The name means “dog den” in the Maori language. When the cave was discovered, it was being guarded by a pack of wild dogs that drove away the hunter who came across the cave. This cave boasts the longest guided underground walking tour in New Zealand and there’s plenty to see.

“Marvel at the softly folding shawl-like limestone formations and crystal tapestries. Hear the distant thunder of the subterranean waterfalls and get up close to the glowworms.” The tour of Ruakuri takes about 2 hours, with 1.5 hours underground.

Other Services at Waitomo

Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre (Photo by Flickr User Kristine D.C. Hoeppner)
Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre (Photo by Flickr User Kristine D.C. Hoeppner)

The Waitomo complex includes a full-service restaurant serving local specialties, and a more casual cafe where you can grab a quick snack or a drink. There’s also a cafe near the Black Water Rafting center. A uniquely-designed visitor center was rebuilt after a fire and offers conference and event space.

You can even stay in accommodations near Waitomo. There’s pretty much everything you might need nearby. The glowworms prefers its habitat to be quiet and light-free, so taking photos inside the cave is prohibited. Some people try their luck with no flash, using high ISO settings and wide aperture. 

The most important thing is not to disturb the glowworms. It’s their world and we’re just visiting.

Final Thoughts on Waitomo’s Glowworms

Floating through the glowworms in Waitomo was one of the best experiences. It’s peaceful and mesmerizing. Something you truly can’t see nearly anymore where else in the world. You definitely should plan a trip there if you’ll be in North Island.

Have you been to Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

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glow worm Cave
Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand

23 thoughts on “Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand

  1. Marc says:

    This is an amazing cave.been there and done that. Thats is one of my favorite caves in the world. great pics.

  2. Sand In My Suitcase says:

    What an absolutely magical-sounding experience! (At least the glow-worm part) Your adventure reminds us a little of sea kayaking through the hongs (doughnut-shaped islets) in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. We had to lie down flat in our kayak to squeeze through pitch-black tunnels (where the roof was barely an inch above our noses) to enter the inside of the hongs.

  3. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru says:

    I have never done anything even remotely close to these experiences! What a fascinating, other-worldly adventure your photos convey. All I could think of while reading through your post is what a sensational sense of humor the Creator must have. Unique and magnificent.

  4. Lesley says:

    I love visiting caves but I haven’t experienced something as magical as the glowworm grotto before. I’m sold! It’s going on my 2016 bucket list.

  5. Jennifer Ryder Joslin says:

    The glowworm cave looks AWESOME!!! That blackwater rafting is intriguing too. Love the description. Did you guys try it?

  6. Jennifer says:

    I’ll add this to my list of things to do in New Zealand. I’d love to float through the cave and see a million little glowing stars. What a fun and unique experience.

  7. Vicky and Buddy says:

    I’m glad you never actually get that close to the bugs lol! Knowing that, I’d love to see the cave. I’d probably pair it up with one of the rafting tours too and make a whole day of it. Did you think it was worth the price?

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Vicky – I think it was worth the price because it’s not something you can do everywhere. It’s pretty unique to this part of New Zealand. If it hadn’t been as magical as it was, I would consider it more of a tourist trap.

  8. Sophie says:

    I wouldn’t be so keen about the bugs but it’s so worth it looking at the photos – so beautiful! And rafting would be awesome too!

  9. Vanessa says:

    So pretty!! This sounds like one of those experiences that make you feel like you are in an entirely different world.

  10. Lauren @ Justin Plus Lauren says:

    WOW so COOL! I’ve heard about it before and despite not liking bugs, I would totally do this. They don’t really remind me of a typical bug…because they look so magical and well, glowing!

    • Laura Lynch says:

      They remind me of cicadas that they have in the eastern US. When I lived in DC, the 17-year cicadas came out for a couple weeks and I thought I was going to freak out, but it wasn’t so bad. They aren’t creepy looking. They’re just big.

  11. Toccara says:

    I would LOVE to do something like this. The price seems a little high, but I guess it’s one of those experience-of-a-lifetime activities you’ve got to do at least once! 🙂

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Toccara, I agree, the price is a little high. With the exchange rate, it’s a bit more affordable.

  12. Mar says:

    Oh! I was in New Zealand got Xmas and wanted to go to the caves but eventually went elsewhere instead but now I know what I missed and I’ll sure put it on the list for bext trip!

  13. Bob says:

    Looks like a blast. I did something similar in Cancun a few years ago. Hot as hell outside but the water was nice and cool and it felt great floating down the underground river.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      I believe I’ve done that same activity in Cancun! 🙂 Especially there, the water is the only place to be when it’s so hot outside.

  14. Kim says:

    Hi where did you stay? There were some
    Nasty hotels near by so we didn’t stay any
    Ideas? Thanks going in March 2016

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Hi Kim. We didn’t stay nearby. We were stationed in Rotorua and drove around the area from there. I hear the Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge is pretty good though.

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