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Rarotonga is part of the Cook Island archipelago. It is the largest of 15 islands with a circumference of 32 Kilometers. Being home of the nation’s capital, Rarotonga is the main industrial hub of the Cook Islands. The island hosts 13,000 residents, with roughly 2,000 living in the Capital city of Avarua.
Detailed Backpacking Guidebook for Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Being completely surrounded by a natural reef, this barrier creates a narrow lagoon full of turquoises water and shallow corals. This reef creates an abundance of sea life that can be found mere feet into the water. The island’s only major road is located next to the shoreline and also surrounds the island. Heading inland past the road the landscape changes abruptly into a world of dense jungle and volcanic peaks.
How to get to the Cook Islands
Rarotonga is easily accessible, with direct flights from New Zealand, Los Angeles, Australia and French Polynesia. The most reasonably priced flights are from Auckland, flying with Jetstar or Virgin Australia. If you book in advance you are able to find a way price around $130 USD otherwise you will be looking at a price of $250-$500 USD each way. I came from Los Angeles to visit the Cook Islands and with some travel hacking I found a one way, direct flight, out of LAX for $460 USD. This cheap flight is with Air New Zealand and is only available on Saturday nights. Not flying from one of these departures? You will be looking at a more expensive flight with an almost guaranteed connection in Auckland.
Places to stay on Rarotonga
Hostels are sparse with only 2 on the island and they fill up fast, this becoming a popular backpacker spot from New Zealand. If the two hostels are full there are a few other budget accommodations and guesthouses located on the island, though they do run a little higher price-wise.
Rarotonga Backpackers – Perfect for stunning sunsets, Rarotonga Backpackers is located on the west side of the island. The main complex has a swimming pool, common area with a billiards table, a communal kitchen and free drinking water. Rarotonga Backpackers has an okay beachfront that progressively gets better the further you walk south. Walking on the main road 15 minutes in either direction you will find small grocery shops.
Dorm beds in the main beachfront complex are $25 NZD per night, minimum of 3 nights. They also have varying beachfront bungalows with different amenities ranging form $50-130 NZD per night. Outside of the main compound Rarotonga Backpackers has other self contained buildings scattered around the island with rooms for $85 NZD per night.
Backpackers International – Located on the southwest corner of the island, which is prime beach and snorkeling area, Backpackers International is inland of the island road, nearby Aroa Beach and the Dive Centre. Backpackers international offers free airport transportation to the hostel.
Dorm Beds start at $20 NZD per night, minimum of 3 nights, with a price that decreases the longer you stay. $18 NZD for 4-6 night stay and down to $16 NZd per night for staying 7+ nights. They also have single and double rooms starting at $35, $45 NZD per night with a minimum stay of 3 nights and a decreasing price to $30, $36 NZD for 7+ nights.
Tiare Village – Located just behind the airport and next to the main town of Avarua. Close-ish to the CTIC grocery store, shopping, morning market, bars and other tourist activities but it is not that close, still a few Kilometers away. Unfortunately being located on the north side of the island it is opposite of the good snorkel spots.
Rooms in the main house start at $25 NZD per nights per person for a double and $30 NZD total for a single. They also provide self contained pool units for $85 NZD for either a single or double bed and $115 NZD for triple bed.
Atupa Orchid Bungalows
Atupa Orchid Bungalows – Also located on the north side of the island and west of Tiare Village, this is closer to the city of Avarua and near to the start of the Cross Island Trek.
Self contained studio units start at $70 NZD per night, accommodating 2 people. Fully furnished single bedroom bungalows start at $90 NZD per night, accommodating 2 people. Two and three bedroom bungalows go for $135 and $150 NZD per night
Viamaanga Views Studio
Viamaanga Views Studio – With an almost perfect location on the south side of the island, just west of the Saltwater Cafe, and only a short walk to Rarotonga’s best beach and snorkeling spot, they provide free snorkel gear to use.
Prices start at $79 NZD for a private, fully furnished bungalow equipped with kitchen and bathroom.
Aremango Guesthouse – Located on the southeast corner of the island in the small town of Muri, here you are close to the night market and great restaurants. This corner of the island has soft sand and shallow water and you are next to Rarotonga’s only motus which are a short swim or boat ride away.
Private double rooms start at $69 NZD per night.
Getting Around the Island
This is of course the most wallet friendly and is widely accepted in the Cook Islands. When I hitchhiked as 2 of us we usually got a ride within 5-10 minuets. Locals are accustomed to picking up hitchhikers and will often go out of their way to get you to your destination, even if it is further than they were planning to travel. The main thing to note is that traffic can be a little sparse on the south side of the island, especially mid-day so plan accordingly.
Riding the Bus
There are two buses that circle the island, the Clockwise bus and Anti-Clockwise bus. With 41 official bus stops it takes about 50 minutes to go completely around the island. If you are not at a designated bus stop you can wave down a bus and hop on. For being island life the bus schedule is extremely punctual, rarely past 5 minutes late.
The cost is $5 NZD per adult for a one way ticket or $8 NZD for a return ticket. Child one way is $3 NZD and 4$ NZD return. You can purchase a 10 ride pass for $30 NZD, adult and $19 NZD, child. Also an individual all day unlimited ride pass is $16 NZD and all day unlimited for families with 2 adults and 2 children is $26 NZD.
Clockwise bus schedule
Monday – Thurs & Saturday 7am – 11pm
Friday 7am – 10pm & 12am – 2:15am
Sunday 8am – 12pm & 2pm – 4pm
Anti-Clockwise bus schedule
Monday – Friday 8:30am – 4:30pm
Saturday 8:30am – 12:30pm
Sunday (No Bus)
Renting a Scooter in the Cook Islands
This is by far the easiest way to get around the island. You have no wasted time hitchhiking and you don’t have to plan your day around the bus schedule. Scooters cost $15 – $25 NZD per day. Most places give weekly discounts for $100 NZD or less. Island Car & Scooter has multiple locations and they rent for around $14 NZD per day. And if your visiting in low season most places may offer you a better rate.
Downside to scooter renting: If your license does not specify that you can legally drive a scooter, regardless if you can at home, you will need to do a scooter assessment test. The cost has recently risen to $90 NZD and it is not possible to rent a scooter without one of these two things. If you get lucky and get a shop to rent you a scooter without the proper licensing and you get pulled over the fine is only $20 NZD, so it might be worth the risk. Also if your license is in a language other than English you may be able to go to the police department and ask for a temporary license for free, most are not willing to wast the time to look up the licensing and translate your ID.
Riding a Bicycle on Rarotonga
With the humidity and hot temperature I don’t recommend biking around the island. Renting a bike is only good for short trips to town, the beach or the store. If you have the extra budget renting a bike fine but with how easy it is to hitchhike or if you are unlucky like me and it rains for 5 days in a row, you are better off not renting, especially long term.
I rented my bike from Adventure Dive Center for $50 NZD for 7 days. It was in great shape and they said that if anything happened I could leave my bike locked up by the side of the road, call them and they would come get it and fix it. Most rentals go for $12 – $15 NZD per day with the price decreasing to $8 NZD if you rent for a week or longer. Paying in cash can also lower the rate.
While very convenient, car rentals are also pricier than the other options. If you are short on time or you have a small group this would be your best option to explore the island. The prices vary from $25 – $40 NZD per day, depending on the shop and length of rental.
Things to do in the Cook Islands
Most of the island is surrounded by a decent stretch of beach, with the most popular being Muri Beach due to its proximity to the motus and lagoon tours. Unfortunately the water close to Muri is quite murky and it has a slight current so I believe there are a few nicer options. If you head just south of Muri, close to the Fruits of Rarotonga your water quality improves and you are blessed with great snorkeling. The beach itself is nothing spectacular so you need to continue further southwest for it to open up.
On the islands southwest corner, beginning near the Rarotongan resort is another great beach. From there if you head north past the resort until you reach Aroa Beachside Inn you will find beautiful turquoise water. Going closer to The Dive Centre is where you will have the clearest water on the island and a beautiful white sand beach.
Rarotonga Snorkel Spots
This is one of the best activities to do on the island and you should defiantly bring your own equipment. While some hotels will provide gear for free, the majority rent it out for $5 NZD per day for mask and snorkel. If you want to use fins that is an additional $5 per day. Also to buy snorkeling equipment on Rarotonga it will cost you$40 – $60 NZD for a mask and snorkel.
Aroa Beach – Located in the front of the Adventure Dive Center (Bus Stop #27). This spot has great shallow corals with a variety of small fish. During rain storms this is where the fresh water runs from the island so the water can get a little murky. One day I managed a glimpse of a Spotted Eagle stingray.
The Dive Centre – Located just before the Rarotongan Beach resort (between Bus Stops #25 – 26). This is a nice beach with a wide area to swim and snorkel. Also this spot has more living coral and a greater fish diversity compared to other spots.
Fruits of Rarotonga – Located on the southeast side of the island (Bus Stop #16). Here is another great area for shallow coral and schools of fish. The real gems are located out deeper. If it is calm out you can swim past the shallow corals and past a sand area to find a few deep corals. These corals are more spread out but they are also massive in size. Here you can find brain coral the size of a car and deep enough to be able to safely swim on top of. Out here you can let the light current take you across the corals where you can see larger fish.
Downside to the Fruits of Rarotonga – This is where the snorkel tour boats stop and the wind picks up mid-day, creating waves and increased current. Make sure to arrive early in the morning for the best snorkeling.
Hiking on Rarotonga
If you need some time away from the water Rarotonga has 4 popular hiking trails, each leading to a different mountain peak. The most notable hiking trail is the Needle hike. This hike is part of the popular Cross Island Trail. The Needle is almost directly centered on the island and it is the highest peak on Rarotonga. A lot of people that hike to the Needle continue on to finish the Cross Island Trail instead of turning back around. This was the only hike I was able to do but I talked with a few locals who told me that the other hikes are also worth doing and are in good condition.
The Cross Island Trail – This hike as an elevation of 413 meters and takes around 4-5 hours to complete. Since this hike literally crosses through the island there are two trail heads. The northern trail head is located north of the roundabout in Avarua. Take a right at the Gift Shop or go follow the road directly behind the Sea Salt restaurant and follow the road inland. The southern trail head is easier to find, it is located at Wigmore’s Waterfall which is bus stop #24.
The hike was designed to be completed from the north to the south and I did not know this at the when I hiked the Cross Island trail. I went the wrong direction, south to north. After hiking it and due to the hiking conditions I believe that the trail should be completed in the wrong direction. When hiking from the south you start at Wigmore’s Waterfall then proceed to increase in elevation while crossing the river 6-7 times. Personally I would rather climb up a slippery, wet, muddy trail then descend it. To note it rained the previous 5 days straight when I hiked the trail so there was a lot of debris over the trail. I was told this was uncommon and in the dry season the waterfall might even dry up.
- Wild Tip: Be aware that 1-1.5 hours of the total hike time is spent walking from the road to the trail heads. Driving to the trail head is unwise unless you only hike to the Needle and turn back around. Make sure to plan accordingly with food and water.
Another plus for hiking south to north is that you will finish your hike in the town of Avarua, which has actual options for food, water and a cold beer. If you hiked north to south you end up next to nothing but the main road. The nearest food or water is over 1 kilometer down the road.
The hike itself is covered in a dense jungle canopy so you are mostly shielded from the sun. The trail is marked with orange triangle reflectors but they are located on the north side of trees, if you go south to north the reflectors will be behind you. This isn’t an issue as the trail is easy to spot. The trail consists of mostly rocks and mud following the river then changes to tree roots when ascending or descending. Other than that it is a nice wore down footpath with little underbrush. Once you get to the Needle you are exposed to the elements but the Needle offers a sweeping panoramic view of the island.
Raemaur Trail – Located on the west side of the island with an elevation of 340 meters.
Ikurangi & Te Manga Trails – Located on the east side of the island and sharing a trail head the trail spits off to each mountain peak with Te Manga at the highest hiking elevation at 653 meters.
What to Eat and Where to get Free Water on the Cook Islands
Water is always an expense when traveling, it is a main cost, especially in a hot and humid climate where you need to always stay hydrated. Luckily water is FREE on Rarotonga. Each district itself or various companies have sponsored sites with safe, clean, free drinkable water. These stations are located every few kilometers along the main road. Keep in mind that these are the only places to safely drink the water, you cannot drink the tap water unless your accommodation has a filtered tap to use. Here is a list of the free water stations that I found, there are more on the island and if you ask any local they will point you to the nearest one.
- Water is available at every school
- Next to the police station on the west side of the island (Bus Stop #33).
- Behind the Sea Salt takeaway Restaurant in Avarua.
- Beside Adventure Divers & the Backpackers International (Bus Stop #27).
- On the southwest side of the island, next to the road in Rutaki.
Resturant Specials on the Island
Many restaurants on the island are only open for lunch OR dinner but usually not both. It is also common to find them closed mid-day. Another common thing is daily specials with different restaurants claiming a day of the week with the best special. For example, Wednesdays Palace Takeaways has $3.50 NZD burgers all day long. They offer 5 different options, including one veggie and one fish. This has started a challenge to eat all 5 burgers in one sitting. Unfortunately, bragging rights are the only thing you win and maybe a stomach ache.
Across the road from is Sea Salt Takeaway which has various daily specials. The burgers are better quality here and with specials of $3.50 NZD chicken burger one day and a double bacon cheeseburger with fries for $10 NZD another day.
If you are staying nearby Rarotonga Backpackers another good restaurant is Pacific Fish and Chips. Their food is excellent, with large portions and specials. During the week they are only open for dinner, Saturdays they are closed and Sundays they are only open for lunch. There can be a long wait but they can prepare your food for takeaway.
Charlies Cafe is a great spot. Located on the southwest side of the island on your way to the Fruits of Rarotonga.
If you are looking for drink specials you have to check out Hula Bar, the most popular bar, with $3.50 NZD drinks all day long (11am-11pm). On the Rocks does $4.00 NZD drinks from 3-6pm. You can also find a local brewery on the island and a party bus that picks you up for a round the island pub crawl.
Be aware that the bars close early on Saturday nights and no alcohol is sold on Sundays.
For purchasing your own beer, you will pay about $3.00 NZD per 330ml can or $6.00 NZD for a 750ml bottle. Most shops stop selling alcohol at 9pm, so pickup enough for the night. The best deals for alcohol can be found at the CTIC Liquor store (Bus Stop #40) or the Bond Store (Bus Stop #41).
Rarotonga Grocery Stores
Food is quite expensive anywhere on the island and the best way to save money on food is to go to the CTIC supermarket on the north side of the island (Bus Stop #40). If you are on the south side of the island another good option is Wigmore’s superstore in the Vaimaanga district (Bus Stop #23).
There are plenty of small shops on the island but the prices will be significantly higher. Maneafoods is located on the northeast side of the island (Bus Stop #6). The closest shops to Rarotonga Backpackers are Friendly Market, north of the main hostel and south at BPS which is a store and petrol station. If you are staying by Backpackers International there is a brand new petrol station, a small cheaper priced grocery store and a cheap ice cream shop next door. If you are looking for fresh produce, the best option is at the Punanga Nui Market in Avarua. Only on Saturday mornings.
Internet and Cell Phone SIM Cards
If your looking to get online unfortunately there is no free internet on Rarotonga. If your accommodation has wifi you will most likely have to pay per megabyte, which does not come cheap. If you have to get connected the best option is to purchase the Visitors SIM card from Bluesky.
Bluesky is the island’s cell phone carrier and they offer two types of SIM cards, local and visitor, make sure you ask for the visitor SIM card which comes with 3GB of data, 300 text messages and 30 minutes of international calling. It is good for 30 days and costs $50 NZD.
Hotspots on the island – Once again Bluesky is your best bet for hotspot WIFI. Prices start at $5 NZD for a 3 day, 200MB pass. $10 NZD for a 14 day, 500MB pass. $25 NZD for a 7 day, 1.5GB pass and $50 NZD for a 30 day 3GB pass. Your other option for hotspots and WIFI is through Zenbu and this is the more expensive option, costing 10 cents for 1MB or $10 NZD per 100MB, which is not a lot of data.
The cheapest option to get online is to go to the main Bluesky office located in Avarua city and use one of their computers. You cannot use your own device but the cost inexpensive compared to the alternatives. $6 NZD for 30 minutes, $9 NZD for 1 hour or $12 NZD for 2 hours of unlimited internet. The office is open from 7am-11pm everyday.
Other Things to do on Rarotonga
Sunday Church Worship
The Arorangi Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) is a popular church where tourists are welcome to attend. Located on the west side of the island, next to bus stop #32. The service is in English and the local language of Maori. It is very formal so don’t show up in your boardies and tank top, dress appropriately. The major draw is hearing the local hymns sung in Maori, the songs are stunning. There is no food or drink allowed in the church but after the service a free buffet lunch is provided.
Jetblasting has become somewhat of a tradition for tourists. Jetblasting is where you stand absurdly close to the end of the airport runway, actually this is the closest that you can stand in almost anywhere in the world, and you get blown backwards or even off your feet, with the air from the jet engines as the plane takes off. Fridays are the best day to Jetblast, this is when the biggest plane takes off but anytime is worth it for something fun and free to do. Make sure to look at the flight schedule or ask the bus driver for the flight times.
Whale Watching on Rarotonga
From July to October you can see humpback whales of the cost of the island. Whales migrate to the warmer south pacific waters to mate, cave and rest. Amazingly these beautiful creatures come close enough to the shore allowing you to watch them from nearby Avarua city. To get the best view grab a beer at Trade Jacks or Black Rock and head upstairs to see further.
If you want to learn more about these grand creatures, Nan Hauser, a leading whale expert has opened the Whale Education Center. The entry fee is $12 NZD per adult and $6 NZD per child. Open Sunday-Friday 10am-4pm. (www.cookislandswildlifecentre.com)
Punanga Nui Market
This is the main market on the island. Located on the western edge of Avarua City, it is only open on Saturday mornings from 8am-12pm. Here you can find many vendor shops selling traditional goods and souvenirs. There are plenty off food huts with decently priced meals and here is where you will find fresh produce. Traditional music and dances are also preformed.
Muri Night Market
This market is a lot smaller than the Punanga Nui market but it runs every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday nights from 5pm-8pm. Located in the city of Muri and mostly offering food stalls instead of handicrafts. The prices are a bit higher, catered to the nearby resorters. You can find a big plate of food for around $14-18 NZD.
Day Trips from Rarotonga
You can find jungle treks and lagoon tours but the best and most popular day tour is to visit Aitutaki Island. The lagoon at Aitutaki is one of the best in the south pacific but it does not come cheap with the trip costing around $400 NZD.
Final Thoughts for Visiting Rarotonga on a Budget
This was my first South Pacific experience and it did not disappoint. The people are extremely friendly and Rarotonga offers a lot to do for a slightly lower price than anywhere else in the South Pacific. Travel is a breeze with English being the main language and the island is a perfect size. I hope you enjoyed my Rarotonga Backpacker Guidebook and if you have any questions about this stunning destination feel free to comment below.