How to See Rotorua on a Budget

Geothermal sites like Rotorua are never kind to people with sensitive noses. The earth’s crust is a bit thinner here, creating hot springs, bubbling mud pools and steamy otherworldly scenes that draw tourists to this part of New Zealand. The hydrogen sulphide gas they emit (the sites, not the tourists) is an unfortunate side effect though.

Rotorua
The Rotorua Museum surrounded by the gorgeous Government Garden

The smell was not overpowering enough to make most newcomers gag, but it wasn’t a place where I’d breathe deeply either. It was a daily reminder of what lay under my feet. Sometimes, it seemed that the cracks in the road had a direct connection to hell.

Rotorua
I wouldn’t like to end up like that cone.

Most visitors stay just a couple of nights and leave, thankful to leave the pong behind. I stayed a few weeks for work, and by the end of the first, I was breathing more or less normally. The smell’s stronger within the city and on rainy days though – and it rained a lot.

In spite of the weather, there were plenty of things to see and do, but most of them came with pretty steep fees. Even with the help of Bookme, the expenses added up quickly. With the extra time that I had to explore the city (it’s a tiny one), I managed to unearth the following ways to see and experience Rotorua for a fraction of the cost.

Free geothermal sights

There is really no need to pay to see geothermal features at places like Waiotapu and Waimangu. Kuirau Park in the middle of the city is dotted with several steaming fumaroles and mud pools. True, they are only a fraction of the size, but they are also absolutely free.

Kuirau Park, Rotorua
Kuirau Park, Rotorua
Rotorua
This compares rather favourably to the Champagne Pool, doesn’t it?

But there are no geysers in Kuirau, I hear you say. Well, there is a hill to the south that gives a commanding view of the city, Te Puia park and the Pouhutu geyser. The space that my friend and I enjoyed up there contrasted sharply with the crowds that gather every morning to see the Lady Knox geyser.

The said hill is a short drive or a slow run down the road heading to Taupo. Turn left at Waipa State Mill Road.

Pouhutu Geyser with Rotorua in the background
Pouhutu Geyser with Rotorua in the background

It’s tempting to try out one of the spas to see what it can do for one’s skin, but even the cheapest hostels have at least one hot tub with piped spring water for relaxing in. Mine did, and your accommodation most probably would. Even the mud used in the treatments is sold in the souvenir shops.

Never put your head underwater in any hot pool in these parts, though – the risk of amoeba eating your brains out is real.

For more natural settings than the concrete pool, I drove out to the Hot and Cold River, where a stream from a heated source converges with a cooler one. A few hostel mates joined me. We played Goldilocks by moving around until the water temperature felt just right. It wasn’t crowded at all when we visited on a weekday.

Hot and Cold Rotorua
The Hot and Cold River
Just chilling/warming up
Just chilling and preparing to warm up to one another

Maori culture

Rotorua is also a popular place to watch Maori cultural performances and gorge on ground-cooked hangi buffets. They typically cost upwards of NZD80 though, so what’s one to do if that money has been reserved for other things?

Ohinemutu is a Maori village on the shores of Lake Rotorua and a short walk from the city. There probably won’t be songs and dances but there are ordinary people to say hello to. Among the things worth seeing are the intricate carvings on the marae (meeting house) and a church with Maori-influenced designs. On cold days, treat yourself to the sight of steam dancing on the surface of the water. All this geothermal heat is also the reason why, in the churchyard, the deceased have to buried above ground.

St Faith's Church, Rotorua
St Faith’s Church in Ohinemutu
Rotorua
Marae in Ohinemutu

As for the food, the Kiwi Kai shop on Amohau Street does it pretty well. They started as a stand at the Saturday morning market in Kuirau Park, and they still run one there. By the way, the market is also definitely worth waking up early for – skip the hotel breakfast and just head for the food stalls. I was surprised to see tour buses there on a couple of occasions, but that’s how popular it’s become.

Rotorua
The Saturday market

Adrenaline pumpers

Rotorua is the home of Zorbing (rolling down the hill inside a ball) and there is good whitewater rafting on the Kaituna river, with a 20-foot waterfall being the highlight. The Skyline Luge is quite family-friendly too, with three different tracks to zip down using only the power of gravity. They’re all good fun if you’re prepared to shell out NZD40 or more, even if the thrills are rather brief.

Mountain biking on the Waipa Mill trails (the same area as the lookout spot mentioned earlier) sets the budget-conscious mind at peace and gives the heart a great workout for much less. And then there is the unofficial cliff jump at Trout Falls that costs nothing – provided one can swim. Check out my account of my experience here.

A beautiful spot for cliff jumping

What’s your favourite Rotorua activity?

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