The Magical Waitomo Caves in New Zealand

The Waitomo Caves in New Zealand are an essential stop – even if you think you’ve been there, done that before when it comes to underground visits. These cave systems, one of North Island’s biggest attractions, have been popular for a century. There are around three hundred in total, but the three main caves – Glowworm, Ruakuri and Aranui – are a good starting point.

The Waitomo Caves in New Zealand

Glowworm Cave

If it’s twinkly lights you’re after, then do what most people do and take the forty-five minute guided tour of Glowworm Cave. You’ll be led past towering stalagmites and long dangling stalactites along a path that opens up into a large cavern. Known as the Cathedral, the acoustics are excellent and it’s no surprise to learn that there have been several high-profile concerts there. At the end of the walk, visitors board a boat to float along an underground river. Looking up, you’ll see the romantic sight of the light given off by the glow-worms that make the cave their home. Just don’t spoil the magic by thinking about what glow-worms really are – the larvae of the fungus gnat that use the luminescent green light of their organs to lure prey to their death, tangled in the sticky threads that trail from its hammock lair.

This is the most popular amongst the Waitomo caves in New Zealand.

Waitomo Caves in New Zealand: Waitomo Glowworm cave
Waitomo Glowworm cave: Photo by 2il Org / CC-BY-2.0

Ruakuri Cave

If that’s too tame, then head for nearby Ruakuri Cave. A spiral staircase bypasses the Maori burial ground over which tourists used to tramp as they entered the cave. It’s a spiritual place, open again after an eighteen year closure. Its name means “den of dogs” after the wild dogs that once lived there. Ruakuri, like Glowworm, features impressive stalactites, glow-worms and a host of features with intriguing names like The Pretties and Ghost Passage. Thrill-seekers will be drawn by the chance to ditch the walking tour in favour of the dramatically named, five hour Black Abyss tour. This offers the brave the chance to abseil 35 metres down into the cave, fly into the pitch black on a zip line and then leap off a waterfall into the underground river in order to float underneath the glow-worms in an inner tube and wet suit.

Waitomo Caves in New Zealand: Ruakuri Cave downstream entrance
Ruakuri Cave downstream entrance: Photo by James Shook / CC-BY-2.5

Aranui Cave

If it’s important for you to complete the trio, head three kilometres west to the third cave, Aranui. Named after the Maori man who found it over a hundred years ago, this cave lacks the glow-worms that draw visitors to its more popular neighbours. Aranui Cave is dry, but it’s still worth seeing for the variety of limestone formations it offers. It also has a colony of cave wetas; these large insects, related to crickets and locusts, date back to pre-historic times.

If you’re planning to explore the Waitomo caves in New Zealand, Rotorua is great place to find hotels. It’s only about 2 hours’ drive from Waitomo.

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

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  1. 5 Most Romantic New Zealand Destinations | Go 4 Travel Blog

    […] through them. This subterranean wonderland is made all the more surreal and beautiful by the presence of thousands of glowworms lining the walls. Here you can take a tour where your boat will pass by incredible rock formations and you can […]


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