Glowworms in Waitomo: Best Seen Independently


Waitomo glowworm cave tour

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary Ruakuri Cave Walk and Glowworm Boat Tour thanks to my partnership with Tourism New Zealand. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.

Before coming to New Zealand, the one thing that was right at the top of my list was seeing the glowworms in Waitomo. I had seen hundreds of incredible photos online showing people surrounded by magical-looking, glowing lights and instantly known that this was something I had to experience.

Dave had signed up for a crazy 100 metre abseil adventure in the days before arriving in Waitomo and had spent hours trying to convince me to join him, insisting that I’d find it “fun”. With visions of ropes breaking and Laurens falling, I obviously declined to go with him and instead spent my day working at Juno Hall. The wifi was provided by Global Gossip (free for YHA members) and was surprisingly fast for New Zealand internet. I spent my day writing in the cosy common room and watching movies with my fellow backpackers.

Juno Hall YHA Garden

Dave arrived back at the hostel later that day, exhilarated, covered in mud and with plenty of ridiculous photos to show me.  After hearing all about their adventurous day, I decided I needed to do something equally as adventurous to prove to them both that I was actually a very courageous person. We decided to head out that night to find us some glowworms.

…Because walking around a paved nature trail in the dark is just as adventurous as a 100 metre abseil into a cave…

We were booked on a couple of glowworm cave tours the following morning but Dustin had previously visited Waitomo and knew of a good spot outside the caves where we could go glowworm hunting alone.

We waited for night to fall before driving down to the entrance of Aranui caves. I shivered as I warily eyed up the lone campervan in the carpark glistening under the full moon. Flashbacks of every horror movie I’d ever watched replayed before my eyes, the screeching of bats flying overhead doing nothing to calm my nerves.

I can do this…

The thirty minute trail to the cave entrance was unlit so we resorted to using the flashlights on our phones, Dave and Dustin shining it at their feet, me carelessly shining it backwards into Dave’s eyes.

With only the thud of our footsteps to keep us company, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being followed, hunted even. I imagined the newspaper headlines chiding the careless backpackers who went wandering down unlit trails in the middle of the night. Our irresponsible parents would be judged, our stupidity mocked and there’d be yet another Reddit thread saying I deserved to die.

I bit down on my lip, forcing myself to keep my whimpering under control and refusing to admit to my gripping anxiety.

A few minutes later, I really started to feel uncomfortable as I watched both Dave and Dustin shuffle through a small tunnel and disappear into an envelope of darkness.

This was it.

I forced myself through the gap and when I saw what was on the other side I instantly forgot all about my fears.

Fluorescent glowworms were dotted over the cave walls, illuminating the track and tricking my mind into thinking that I was gazing up the night sky. We turned off our lights and as the darkness deepened, the glowworms became more and more noticeable, trees and bushes looking as if they were littered with fairy lights.

It was truly an incredible, magical experience. Several times I had to remind myself that the lights were real, that the glowing lights were insects.

And, yes, it was near-impossible to get a good photo of them.

Glowworms at Waitomo

The following morning I awoke excited. I was looking forward to spending the entire day actually entering the glowworm caves and seeing even more than I had last night.

We arrived and were immediately placed into groups of around thirty people. We lined up at the entrance and watched as the groups began entering the caves at 10 minute intervals. There were screaming children, obnoxious adults and I was already feeling disappointed by the experience before we’d even entered the cave.

There’s no denying that the cave itself was impressive, a huge cavern filled with enormous stalagmites and stalactites. We were ushered through the cave, pausing whenever we caught up with the tour group ahead of us, barely able to hear the tour guide due to the noise from both the surrounding groups and ours.

I was feeling pretty underwhelmed — in my opinion, there is a huge difference between seeing them alone surrounded in silence to seeing them with 100 other people who were chattering excitedly and noisily.

Waitomo glowworm cave tour

The tour through the cave was brief and we were soon lining up for the boat ride, a five minute ride through a “Glowworm Grotto”. We queued for twenty minutes before finally reaching the front of the queue.

As we slowly drifted away from the bright lights of the queueing area, our guide motioned several times for us to remain silent.

“WOAAAAAH! LOOK AT THAT, MUMMY!”, the child behind us bellowed before dissolving into laughter. With his Mother doing nothing to silence him, he began loudly pointing out every single glowworm.

And then his sister started loudly talking too.

Despite the guide repeatedly gesturing for them to be quiet, the children shouted and spoke for the entire boat journey.

Which kind of spoiled the moment for me.

I spent my time in the caves feeling irritated rather than awed, frustrated rather than excited. I ended up feeling pretty disappointed with the whole experience. The shuttling of tour groups through the caves every few minutes and the badly-behaved tourists had made the experience underwhelming and unpleasant.

And yet, our day wasn’t over — we were now heading over for a guided tour of Ruakuri Cave.

Ruakuri Caves Waitomo

While the tour of Ruakuri Cave was slightly better, I’m afraid to stay it was still disappointing.

Our tour group was about half the size of our previous one, which made everything a little more manageable. The Ruakuri tour was longer, more detailed (though the tour guide was unenthusiastic and appeared to be bored most of the time) and you got to see a lot more of the caves and glowworms.

The most enjoyable part was when the tour guide switched off every single light and we had to make our way through the tunnels in absolute darkness. With no children on this tour, it meant that there was complete silence for the walk, which added to the magical atmosphere of the cave.

The funniest part was when Dave and I left Dustin to take cave photos and the tour guide didn’t realise anybody was left behind and accidentally locked him inside the previous cave with the lights off…

Waitomo glowworm cave tour

As a (mostly) independent traveller, I often try to avoid these tour group situations if at all possible, preferring to find a way to see attractions without five million people screaming in my ear. Given that the glowworm boat tour costs $48 and the Ruakuri Cave tour $67 ($83 for a combined ticket to see both), I couldn’t help but feel like they’re overpriced and poor value for money.

If you’re going to Waitomo and want to see the glowworms, you don’t need to take a tour. Drive to Aranui Caves at night and go see them yourself. It’s a far, far better experience — you can stay for as long as you want, you’ll likely be the only people there and it’s completely free to experience. 

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47 Comments

  1. Yvette
    April 26, 2013
    Reply

    Man, the glowworms really are awesome aren’t they?! :)

    When I went to see them I went with a friend on a day trip down from Auckland (my first time driving on the wrong side of the road- an adventure in itself), but we did the blackwater rafting tour where you get to spelunk through the cave on an inner tube. Seriously more fun than the official tour and worth your wile if you want to do one IMO, tho the water was COLD- I remember having an issue taking off the helmet after because my finger were too numb for the clasp so the guide had to do it.

    I also had a friend who said there’s a similar cave on the South Island that you can do without a tour, but I’m going to be really unhelpful and not remember where it is.

    • Lauren
      April 26, 2013
      Reply

      They’re SO cool! :-)

      I considering doing the blackwater rafting tubing thingumajig but the cold water put me off, and the thought that I’d die (of course!).

      Now I’m off to Google what spelunk means!

      • Yvette
        April 29, 2013
        Reply

        I’m sure you’ve found out by now, but spelunking= caving. As in when you actually have a helmet and need to crawl around a bit instead of walking on a guided tour.

        I did it a bit in high school and then while traveling and it’s good fun- trick though is never think about how far underground you are, just how it’s like you’re crawling through small rooms or something like that. Especially when you’re trying to figure out how to go through a tube where you need to crawl on your stomach to fit. ;)

  2. J from Travel On Inspiration
    April 26, 2013
    Reply

    Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for the honest review of the glow worm caves. It would have been easier to just give it a good review considering they paid for your trip but your honesty is really appreciated.

    Keep up the inspiring travels and awesome reviews.

    • Lauren
      April 26, 2013
      Reply

      No problem, J!

      I always make it clear to my sponsors that they are *not* guaranteed a positive review — just an honest one. I want my readers to be able to trust and rely on me to provide them with accurate information, whether that’s positive or negative.

      Plus, I’m a terrible liar ;-)

  3. memographer
    April 27, 2013
    Reply

    Thanks for the review. I’ll try to do it myself without a group tour.
    Don’t worry, I’ll open the door and let Dustin out.

    • Lauren
      April 30, 2013
      Reply

      Hahaha, I can’t believe none of us realised he’d been locked in another cave! We are bad friends…

  4. Julia
    April 26, 2013
    Reply

    Really wish I’d read this before we went! Where’s Dustin when you need him lol?! Like you, the glowworms were top of my list, but seeing them on a tour just left me feeling a little bit underwhelmed.

    • Lauren
      April 28, 2013
      Reply

      Secretly a little glad I wasn’t the only one left feeling underwhelmed ;-)

  5. Debbie
    April 27, 2013
    Reply

    Seeing the glowworms sounds cool! On my list :) Glad to hear you don’t need to go in a tour to be able to have the experience!

    • Lauren
      April 30, 2013
      Reply

      It should definitely be on your list, Debbie! Even though the tour was disappointing, the glowworms themselves are pretty awesome!

  6. Juliann
    April 28, 2013
    Reply

    How cool! I would definitely love to see this. Especially the glow worms. I just returned from Puerto Rico where we saw something similar in the water: the dinoflagelettes in the Bio Bay. Nature is so incredible.

  7. Amanda
    April 28, 2013
    Reply

    Good tip, Lauren! I haven’t done any glowworm stuff in NZ, mostly because the big group tours at Waitomo have never appealed to me. Great to know there’s an option to see them on your own, though! I’ll definitely need to keep that in mind.

    • Lauren
      May 1, 2013
      Reply

      Yes, next time you’re back in New Zealand, you’ll have to go glowworm hunting :-)

  8. Sam
    April 28, 2013
    Reply

    Interesting. Glad to hear, despite being given the tour for free, you’re still able to recommend against it. Good for you!

    • Lauren
      May 1, 2013
      Reply

      Of course. I’m not sure why I’d lie and say something was great if it wasn’t! :-)

  9. Tamsin
    April 28, 2013
    Reply

    Oh how easily other people can ruin an experience! I’m not usually one for tours either, but I did one with Spellbound, which was excellent – a small group tour with a knowledgable local guide whose family owned the land with one of the caves featured in the Planet Earth series.

    • Lauren
      May 1, 2013
      Reply

      I’d heard good things about Spellbound from some of the people staying at my hostel so it sounds like it could be an alternative way to visit the glowworms if you want to go on a tour?

  10. Adam @ SitDownDisco
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    I have done the tour through Waitomo Caves and I paid. I liked the tour and we got to see some pretty cool stuff, but as with almost every single activity in NZ, it is severely overpriced. I think a fair price would be around the $20 mark. Max. But they charge more than double this and you end up feeling like you got ripped off. Believe me, it hurts a lot more when you just paid for it. Sad really because otherwise it’s a pretty cool place to go.

    A family behind us had a whinging kid as well and the father had obviously felt the price to be too high as well. He kept telling the kid, “I’ve just paid a lot of money for this so stop crying!”

    It was tops.

  11. Kristin Addis
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    I wanted to see glow worms in New Zealand! My mom had read about where to find them but after a few days of hiking, I’m ashamed to say we completely forgot. Yes, forgot! Silly us.

  12. Juno
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    Agree with you on the downside of tour. There’s a reason why I enjoy travel independently. I went to the same cave, but I was only with local friends. Good experience for me. :)

  13. Talon
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    Thank you! I generally avoid tours anyway, so am quite happy to know I can do this on my own and enjoy it more.

  14. Ali
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    Good to know you didn’t think the tour was worth it. That does sound really expensive for something you can easily do on your own. Although I’m not a fan of caves, so I’m not sure I’d want to do this at all, but the glowworms do sound cool.

  15. Sofie
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    Wow, those are some expensive tours for something you can better do on your own!
    I’m not a tour person either. I have to admit i’m quivkly annoyed by loud turists…

  16. Nate
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    But…but…but…they PAID for you….

    (head explodes)

  17. Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad
    May 1, 2013
    Reply

    Those caves have been on my bucket list for quite a while! So fascinating.

    Good to know it’s better to visit them independently. Although… I would get a little scared of getting lost there! Maybe taking a local would do the trick? :)

    Last week I was also inside an awesome cave in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (link to the photos below, commentluv!). If you come visit our island (which I’m hoping you will do this summer when you hit the Americas!), I’ll definitely take you there and to other awesome places :D

    – Maria Alexandra

  18. TammyOnTheMove
    May 8, 2013
    Reply

    Aww, I love glowworms. Saw them as a child on my ever first school trip to a fortress once. I swear I wasn’t as annoying as those children who were with you though. :-) What a spoiler. I would have been irritated too!

  19. Cheskie
    November 17, 2013
    Reply

    I went with a company called Spellbound – private caves and a group of only 12 people for $73. It was incredible!

    • Lauren
      November 21, 2013
      Reply

      Thanks for the tip, Cheskie!

  20. Janelle
    October 9, 2014
    Reply

    Hi Lauren! I am wondering if you can visit the caves by yourself in the day time, or did you have to go at night? and if so, can you just go as soon as the tours are over?

    • Lauren
      October 13, 2014
      Reply

      Hi Janelle,

      You’ll have to go at night as the glowworms are outside — you don’t actually go inside of the cave to see them if you’re not on the tour, but stand just outside of it.

  21. Esther
    December 17, 2015
    Reply

    Hey Lauren! Is it hard to find the glowworm caves if your’e not with a local?

    • Lauren
      December 17, 2015
      Reply

      Not at all! Just head to one of the car parks for the main glowworm caves and walk along one of the paved walkways.

  22. Saulo
    February 4, 2018
    Reply

    Lauren, I have been looking for information abour Aranui Cave, and it looks like it has paid access. Do you know if it is just companies charging for guided tours, where you can go self-guided for free? Or is it really paid now?

    • Lauren
      February 5, 2018
      Reply

      Oh, it’s always been paid. We walked around the outside of the cave, where the glowworms still hang out — you don’t go inside.

  23. June
    February 21, 2018
    Reply

    LOL abt that 70 yr old naked man.
    Atleast he was a stranger, on 1 trip I saw my own step father 65 yr old walking around naked in the garden behind our resort :(

    • Lauren
      February 25, 2018
      Reply

      Ha!

  24. Arko A
    March 22, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for this article! Really helpful!
    Wanted to understand if Aranui caves entry remains open at night and its allowed? Also, everywhere I have been reading Aranui caves are dry, so want to ensure I don’t miss out on glowworms. I am not too interested in doing a crowded touristy tour.

    Thanks again! Cheers, Arko

    • Lauren
      March 23, 2018
      Reply

      No, Aranui closes at night. The walk I describe doesn’t go into Aranui caves, you just walk around the outside of them. That’s where the glowworms are — not inside. Hope that helps!

  25. pulcino
    November 29, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for your honesty and inspiration!
    You are my travel muse :)

    • Lauren
      November 30, 2018
      Reply

      Thank you so much! <3

  26. Dylan
    December 11, 2018
    Reply

    Hi Lauren, I am currently at Waitomo and was hoping to get an independent experience like yours, can you remember by any chance which track you walked up to to see the glow worms? And did you see them all just outside the cave entrance or somewhere else nearby?

    • Lauren
      January 8, 2019
      Reply

      Yeah, I think we just parked in the normal car park and followed the trail up to the cave entrance.

  27. Nick Grey
    December 22, 2018
    Reply

    Hey Lauren. Thanks for your post. I’m planning a trip here in March and I’m into photography so your article helped out a lot. Question though..the glowworm tour you did..was it about the same amount of glowworms that you’re able to see as it was with the free one you did at night? or was one more impressive than the other(not withstanding the tourists being involved part on the actual tour, haha)

  28. Jo
    January 26, 2019
    Reply

    Hi!
    Came across this article when I was on my way to Waitomo… So just in time !! ;-) Drove to the Aranui caves parking and did the ‘Aranui Bushwalk’ which is a 30 minute return walk. I wasn’t all alone, though. I did get to see quiet a few glowworms, but still wanted more.
    So I paid for a Waitomo Caves tour the next morning…53$ !! It hardly lasted 25 minutes, with actual cave time probably being 12 minutes! Apparently the caves are privately owned and the owners don’t want you taking pictures. The glowworms were awesome… But I still can’t digest having to pay so much to witness nature’s wonders.
    Thanks for your honest review ! Loved it ! :-)

  29. Heidi
    December 29, 2020
    Reply

    This article is out of date now; you cannot go into Aranui caves by yourself as they had many backpackers not respecting the wairua of the cave so now are locked in between guided tours. There are some evening walks you can do through the local forest.

    I’ve just done the cave tours with my family over Christmas 2020 and they were amazing. The guides were awesome, fun and energetic. The boat ride was beautiful and learning the history of the caves was really cool. My young boys want to be palentoligists and they couldn’t get enough of the caves.

    • Lauren
      December 29, 2020
      Reply

      I’m not sure why everybody seems to think I’m telling them to go into the caves?! I’m not! I’m saying walking along the nature trail of the OUTSIDE of the cave. You do not go inside the caves.

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