For the 50+ Traveler

Located about 137 miles south of Auckland, New Zealand, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are unlike any other place on Earth. That’s not an exaggeration -- to see anything like this, you’ll need to head to New Zealand’s North Island.

Thick limestone structures jut out at odd angles while travelers drift through the calm, quiet waters on small boats. Look up, and the true majesty of Waitomo becomes apparent: The ceiling is adorned with hundreds of glowworms, which seem to shine like stars in an alien sky.

Needless to say, it’s a worthwhile experience. Here’s everything you need to know about the Waitomo Caves and the insects that have made them a must-see attraction.

Close up of glowworms in the Waitomo Caves.

Yes, The Glowworms Really Light Up

Their scientific name is Arachnocampa luminosa (Latin for “glowing spider-worm”), and they’re the larvae of the fungus gnat (we’ll admit that “glowworm" sounds quite a bit nicer than “fungus gnat larvae”).

They create a bluish-green light to attract small flying insects, which get caught in the worms' sticky web-like threads. The worms pull in the threads to get their meal, but when they catch insects that are too large for them to eat, they cut them loose.

The gnat maintains its luminescence throughout the other stages of its life cycle, but the larvae glow the brightest. They need an appropriately dark, damp environment in order to catch their prey, so they tend to congregate in underground caves.

Inside the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.

Locals Have Known About The Cave For Over A Century

The first modern visitors to Waitomo Cave were Maori chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace, who explored the underground on a small raft in 1887. Overcome by the sight of the glowworms, they regularly returned to the cave over the next several weeks to enjoy the ethereal light.

Later, Tinorau found a land entrance and began giving tours of Waitomo. Waitomo, by the way, is a Maori word that roughly translates to “stream that flows into the hole in the ground.” Some of Tinorau’s descendants still give tours, so modern tourists have a link to the cave’s early history.

Stalagmites and stalactites in the Waitomo Caves.

The Cave Has Incredible Stalagmites And Stalactites

While the glowworms are the undeniable draw, Waitomo has plenty of other attractions for adventurous tourists.

It’s home to a number of cave formations that formed over millions of years, including massive stalactites (which hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (which seem to grow from the ground). Even without the glowworms, the formations are stunning, regardless of whether you have a general interest in geology.

The entrance to the Waitomo Caves.

The Only Way To See The Glowworms Is Via Boat

The entire boat journey through the glowworm cave only takes a few minutes, though the total Waitomo Cave tour is closer to an hour. The good news is that the tours are appropriate for travelers of all ages, and most parts of the cave will be accessible every day.

A notable exception is the Pipe Organ, the cave’s largest formation. During high-traffic periods, carbon monoxide can build up on this level, so public access to the Pipe Organ may be restricted on some days.

Inside the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.

A Few Practical Preparations Will Make For An Incredible Trip

If you add this trip to your itinerary, make sure to prepare for chilly temperatures and slippery surfaces. Wear a light jacket and comfortable clothing, including decent walking shoes.

Children are admitted on the tours, though travelers are asked to remain silent when visiting the Glowworm Grotto; children can become unsettled in caves, and you should keep that in mind when planning your trip.

Glowworms at Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, You Can’t Bring Your Camera

Photography and videography are not permitted inside the caves, since unnatural light could negatively affect the glowworms. However, your guide will take photos, which you can purchase after the tour.

So, is this just a trick to get tourists to overpay? Probably not, since other nearby caves allow photos. The glowworms are quite responsive, and if they’re disturbed by light or noise, they suddenly stop glowing, shrouding the caves in darkness. Obviously, they can’t attract prey without light, and tours run for 8 hours per day, so the photo ban makes sense.

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves visitor center.

To Visit, You’ll Need To Plan In Advance

Scheduling a tour of the Waitomo Caves isn’t exactly difficult, but you should book in advance to ensure a spot. You can do so on TripAdvisor or on the Discover Waitomo website. Tours typically leave every half hour, sometimes more frequently during peak seasons.

New Zealand has no shortage of natural wonders, but the Waitomo Glowworm Caves rank as one of the country’s most breathtaking destinations. With a bit of prepwork, you can enjoy this illuminating experience for yourself.

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