If you talk to travelers in New Zealand about Rotorua, the first thing you hear is, “eww gross, that place smells,” followed by, “pretty though, I suppose.” But Rotorua is more than just rotten egg smells and steam leaking out of the ground. There is also a rich and lively Maori population living here, and at Whakarewarewa Village they invite you into their home to experience their lives for yourself.
The families of Whakarewarewa village have been taking tourists on tours of the geothermal area around Rotorua since the early 1800s when Europeans began arriving to New Zealand. Those living in the village today keep this tradition alive by opening their doors daily to tourists, who are invited in to view performances, eat food and enjoy the geothermal happenings all around. After living in Rotorua for nearly 6 months, I finally got the chance to go and experience the village myself.
Initially I thought it would be odd to pay to go into someone’s village just to have a look around (and it was, honestly). There was an odd dichotomy between the two sides of the town: half felt like a theme park recreation filled with gift shops, and the other half was where the people of the village actually lived. But given that the village is still in Maori hands, and all performances and tours are run by them, it does make it more of a ‘welcome to my home, let me show you my life’ and less ‘let’s make these people put on a show’ experience. I am sure that people far more intelligent than I have written loads of papers on this type of conundrum, so instead of me prattling on, why don’t we all take a break and go read some of those and come back.
OK, so lots of learning done all around I hope. Carrying on then.
Twenty-one families still reside in the village, so when you walk across the bridge you are truly being invited into their home. Children swim in the river below, racing one another and diving for coins thrown in by tourists. I headed straight to the back of the village to catch the 30-minute performance, featuring traditional songs, stick games, and haka (as well as an audience participation dance, my favorite.)
Following the performance, I hopped onto a tour guided by one of the residents. She was absolutely lovely and had plenty of historical information and personal anecdotes to share. We went up the view platform to see the Pohutu and Price of Wales geysers, then winded down through the geothermal pools (for cleaning, bathing, and cooking) and then ended up in the middle of town at the meeting house.
You can buy traditional hangi meals, which are cooked underground in the geothermal steam. Or, if you’re cheap like me, you can just pay $2 to try the corn they cook in the hot pool (which was very tasty, I must say.) So if you don’t want to throw down $31 for a meal, at least stop by the corn stand.
There are some short nature walks that you can do, which start near the meeting house. One goes up to a viewing platform with an okay view of the village and Rotorua (not worth the hike up if it is as hot as it was when I went.) Another takes you over and around several geothermal pools and a lake. You can watch the small pools bubble and hiss at your leisure, and then continue your walk through the nature walk and back to the village center.
Though the village and experience overall were smaller than I had imagined they would be, both the performance and tour were quite engaging and everyone working in the village was incredibly nice. I enjoyed learning more about the history of the village from a descendant of the historical figures in the stories. Whakarewarewa is a great way to experience all of the best Rotorua has to offer in one spot (for a totally decent price as well.) If you have limited time while coming through Rotorua, I think Whakarewrewa is a good way to get to know the area on a time crunch.
To see what it’s like inside Whakarewarewa, watch my video above (or click here to watch it on youtube.)