Waitomo Glow Worm & Ruakuri Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

A visit to the Waitomo to see the glow worm caves were easily one of the highlights of our New Zealand itinerary. We felt like we truly went to a whole different world! The kids enjoyed seeing the variety of stalagmites and rock formations … and of course, the incredible little glow-worm stars that lit up the cave ceilings!

Getting to Waitomo

Waitomo is about 200km south of Auckland, just under 3 hours driving. My best friend Google told us that there were a couple of good restaurants right outside the cave area, so we hired our car first thing in the morning in Auckland our first road trip in the southern hemisphere. Driving on the left side of the road was a little nerve-wracking in the city, especially when making turns, but once we were on the highway, it was pretty easy to get used to it (just follow the car in front of you!).

We ended up having lunch at Huhu Cafe just 5 minutes from the caves. Friendly service, casual seating, it was the perfect place to stretch out the legs while we refueled our stomachs after a long drive.

About the Waitomo Caves

There are actually three caves in the Waitomo area – the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, the Ruakuri Cave, and the Aranui Cave. You cannot just show up to the caves; rather, you must reserve ahead of time.

After some research, we ended up booking a package that included both the Ruakuri Cave and the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave.

The Ruakuri Cave

We decided that after a 3-hour drive to start with the longer tour first, the Ruakuri Caves. We got there a little early, so the tour started with sitting in a little waiting area (a couple of lawn chairs) and getting to know the other tour members a little. Eventually the tour guide arrived and took us down a path into a little hole that led to a deep spiral stair case to take you into the cave.

I’ll skip to the chase … the cave was amazing. There were so many different rock formations to see, each beautiful in their own different ways. From stalagmites to stalactites and columns to formations that looked like wavy blankets, all four of us were fascinated by the experience. Case in point – the tour is a 2 hours long walking tour. Not once did we ever hear the dreaded words “I’m bored” or “I’m tired” from the kids. Especially for DD – that is no small feat!

The coolest part of the tour was – of course – the glow worms themselves. We were able to stop in a couple of places where the lights were dimmed, or one part – turned completely off – for us to see the beauty of the glow worms. In complete darkness, it was really like experiencing being underneath a starry night sky. But with this tour – there is more! We were able to see the worms in the light as well – up to even a few inches away (but no touching!).

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Another benefit of exploring the Ruakuri Cave experience vs. the Waitomo Glowworm Cave was that here, you are allowed to take pictures.  Unfortunately it took me to the nearly the end of the tour to realize that my Samsung phone was able to take better photos in low light than my old Canon SLR, so a lot of the photos were dark or blurry.

All in all, the Ruakuri Cave was a wonderful experience and a highlight of our New Zealand itinerary.  The cave was beautiful, we were able to see the glow worms both in the dark and up close, and the tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly.  Highly recommended!!

Visitor Tips and Recommendations

When visiting Ruakuri Cave, it’s best to book your guided tour in advance to secure your spot, as reservations are required. Wear comfortable walking shoes and dress appropriately for the underground environment, as temperatures can be cool.

Remember to bring a camera or smartphone to capture the stunning limestone formations and glowworm displays, as photography is permitted within the cave. Additionally, arrive a bit early to explore the visitor center and learn more about the cave’s geological and cultural significance.

During the tour, listen attentively to the knowledgeable guides who provide insights into the cave’s history and ecosystem. Lastly, be respectful of the natural environment and follow all safety guidelines provided by the tour operators for a memorable and enjoyable experience.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

After the Ruakuri Cave, we visited the more famous cave, the Waitomo Glowworm Cave –  I’ll be honest – it was a big letdown after what we just experienced.  The Glowworm Caves is simply put – the Disneyland version of the glowworm cave experience, and not in a good way.  People came to these caves in bus loads, forming long queues and waiting areas to start the tour.  Where the Ruakuri tour had maybe 20 people in the group, the Cave tour had multiple groups of easily 50 people.  You were then ushered through some unmemorable caves to finally get to the main attraction – a boat ride to see the glow worms that lasted… all of 5 minutes, if even that.

Visitor Tips and Recommendations:

It’s recommended to book your tour in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons, to avoid disappointment. Wear comfortable clothing and footwear suitable for walking, as the tour involves some walking and a boat ride.

Keep in mind that photography is not permitted within the cave to preserve the natural habitat of the glowworms, so leave your cameras behind. Arrive early to explore the visitor facilities and perhaps enjoy a meal or snack at the nearby restaurants. Finally, respect the cave environment and follow all instructions from the guides for a safe and enjoyable experience.

The TLDR on Waitomo Caves

Seeing the glow worm caves at Waitomo was a highlight of our trip and definitely worth the drive – but make sure you include and take the time to experience the Ruakuri Cave instead of only doing the more famous Waitomo Glowworm Cave.

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Ruakuri Cave vs Waitomo

Aspect Ruakuri Cave Waitomo Glowworm Cave
Location Approx. 2km northwest of Waitomo village In the heart of the Waitomo region
Accessibility Accessible by car or guided tours from Waitomo village Accessible by car or guided tours from Waitomo village
Tour Experience Immersive exploration with smaller tour groups Popular tourist attraction with larger tour groups
Cave Features Intricate limestone formations, underground river Bioluminescent glowworms, boat ride along underground river
Tour Duration 1.5 to 2 hours Approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour
Photography Allowed Restricted
Visitor Amenities Parking, restrooms, visitor center Parking, restrooms, gift shop
Overall Experience Intimate, immersive, highly recommended Popular, crowded, mesmerizing glowworm display

1. Location and Accessibility:

Ruakuri Cave:

Located approximately 2 kilometers northwest of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Ruakuri Cave offers convenient accessibility from the Waitomo village. Visitors can reach the cave entrance by car or as part of guided tour packages.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave:

Situated in the heart of the Waitomo region, the Waitomo Glowworm Cave is easily accessible from major cities like Auckland. Visitors can drive to the cave or opt for guided tours departing from Waitomo village.

2. Cave Features and Formations:

Ruakuri Cave:

Renowned for its intricate limestone formations and underground river, Ruakuri Cave offers a mesmerizing journey through ancient geological wonders. Highlights include magnificent stalactites, stalagmites, and unique spiral formations, showcasing the geological history of the region.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave:

The main attraction of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave is its mesmerizing population of bioluminescent glowworms, which illuminate the cavern ceilings like a starry night sky. Visitors can marvel at this natural spectacle during a serene boat ride along the underground river, accompanied by informative narration from experienced guides.

3. Tour Experiences:

Ruakuri Cave:

Guided tours of Ruakuri Cave provide an immersive exploration experience, allowing visitors to venture deep into the subterranean world while learning about the cave’s geological significance and cultural heritage. The tour duration typically ranges from 1.5 to 2 hours, with opportunities for photography and close encounters with glowworm colonies.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave:

Tours of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave offer a tranquil boat ride through the illuminated grotto, providing an enchanting encounter with thousands of twinkling glowworms. Knowledgeable guides share fascinating insights into the life cycle and behavior of these unique creatures, enhancing the overall tour experience.

4. Visitor Amenities:

Ruakuri Cave:

Visitor facilities at Ruakuri Cave include ample parking space, modern restrooms, and a visitor center offering informative exhibits and souvenir shops. The cave entrance features wheelchair-accessible pathways and guided tours suitable for visitors of all ages.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave:

The Waitomo Glowworm Cave boasts well-equipped visitor facilities, including parking areas, restrooms, and a gift shop selling locally crafted souvenirs. Visitors can relax in the comfortable waiting area before tours, which cater to diverse preferences and mobility needs.

5. Overall Experience:

Ruakuri Cave:

With its captivating geological formations, immersive tour experiences, and convenient accessibility, Ruakuri Cave is highly recommended for everyone – it was truly an unforgettable underground adventure for us.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave:

While Waitomo Glowworm Cave remains a popular tourist attraction, some visitors may find the tour experience to be more crowded and less immersive compared to Ruakuri Cave. Nevertheless, the mesmerizing beauty of the glowworm display makes it a must-visit destination for those of us who love nature or are just curious.

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Back to New Zealand Itinerary

Rotorua Geothermal Area

Nearby Attractions

In addition to exploring the captivating Ruakuri Cave and Waitomo Glowworm Cave, the Waitomo region offers a plethora of nearby attractions and activities to enhance your New Zealand adventure.

Nature enthusiasts can embark on scenic hikes through the lush Waitomo Forest, home to ancient trees, native birds, and stunning viewpoints overlooking the surrounding landscape. For a thrilling outdoor experience, adventure seekers can try black water rafting in the Waitomo Caves, where they can float through underground rivers and marvel at glowworm displays while navigating through limestone caverns.

Those interested in Maori culture and heritage can visit the nearby Te Puia Cultural Center in Rotorua, where they can learn about traditional Maori arts, crafts, and performances, as well as explore the geothermal wonders of Te Whakarewarewa Valley.

For a relaxing retreat, visitors can unwind in the natural hot springs of Waikite Valley Thermal Pools or enjoy a scenic drive along the Waitomo Scenic Route, taking in the picturesque countryside and charming rural villages along the way. Whether you’re seeking adrenaline-pumping adventures or tranquil nature escapes, the Waitomo region offers something for everyone to enjoy during their visit to New Zealand.

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