What Can You Do for Free in the Cook Islands?
The cost of flights and accommodation can take enough dough from your Cook Islands holiday fund without adding activities to the mix! But you know what they say: “The best things in life are free” and that couldn’t be more true for the experiences in Rarotonga, Aitutaki and the rest of the Cook Islands. See an array of wonderful yet frugal adventures across Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Atiu and beyond in this list of free things to do in the Cook Islands.
While you’re here, you might want to also plan the rest of your trip using The Complete Backpacking Guide to the Cook Islands on a Budget.
1. Hit the Free Snorkelling Spots
Let’s start with the obvious free thing to do in the Cook Islands! From the coral bommies of the lagoons of Rarotonga and Aitutaki to the reef pools of the outer islands, there is no lack of snorkelling spots to be enjoyed. So either borrow some snorkelling gear from your accommodation, rent some gear for the week or bring your own from home and hit the spots mentioned in The Best Snorkelling in the Cook Islands: Top 10 Places to Snorkel!
2. Have a Swim at the Papua Waterfall on Rarotonga
With rugged island interiors, the Cook Islands offers a wonderful array of natural land attractions to visit for free. One of the most popular is the Papua Waterfall, also known as Wigmore’s Waterfall. The falls can be found among the forest in a clearing with picnic tables on Rarotonga. Remember to take some insect repellent with you and check out The Top 10 Natural Wonders in the Cook Islands with many more free natural attractions to visit, as well as the location of this waterfall.
3. Go for an Island Hike!
Like snorkelling spots, the Cook Islands also blesses travellers with oodles of free hiking trails, this time to explore inland. Walk the verdant jungle trails and up volcanic mountain peaks, from the half-day excursion of the Cross Island Trek in Rarotonga to the quick trail up Maunga Pu in Aitutaki. There are far too many trails to list here, so compare your options in the 10 Best Walks & Hikes in the Cook Islands.
4. Jump into a Cave Pool
The islands of Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro are all a little different compared to the hotspots of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. These islands are uplifted coral atolls with jagged “makatea” (coral rock) making up most of the terrain. Due to the abundance of limestone, these islands are awash in caves! While many caves you have to pay for by hiring a guide to take you there, there are cave pools on Mauke and Mitiaro that you can visit for free using the advice given in the 10 Best Caves in the Cook Islands.
5. SUP or Kayak on the Lagoon
Stand-up paddleboards (SUP), paddles and kayaks are a staple of any beachfront accommodation in Rarotonga and Aitutaki, so if you’re staying at such an accommodation, then you have hours of free fun at your disposal. With flat lagoon waters to enjoy, having a paddle is easy – just be careful of the coral and avoid the lagoon passages with strong currents. Check out the best places to paddle in Kayaking in the Cook Islands: Top 5 Places to Kayak and SUP in the Cook Islands: 5 Best Places for Paddleboarding.
6. Visit the Marae and Other Historical Sites
The Cook Islands has a rich history of ancient Polynesian tribes, missionary arrivals and much more. Marae (old gathering grounds) with distinctive stone formations are the most common and ancient historical sites still remaining in the Cook Islands, while coral limestone churches are some of the more prominent historical architectures. Check out some of the historical sites that are free to visit listed in the 10 Best Historical Sites in the Cook Islands.
7. Discover Breathtaking Beaches
One of the biggest drawcards to the Cook Islands is its beaches. With white-sand beaches encircling Rarotonga, pristine beaches on uninhabited islands on the Aitutaki Lagoon and secluded beaches backed by “makatea” on the islands of Mangaia, Atiu, Mitiaro and Mauke, you’ll find a wealth of areas to beachcomb in the Cook Islands – and no one is going to charge you for it! Check out our favourites in the 10 Best Beaches in the Cook Islands.
8. Head to the Islands’ Lookouts
Sure, most lookouts on Rarotonga you have to hike to, but on the islands of Aitutaki and Mangaia, you can simply drive to them! Get spectacular views across the Aitutaki Lagoon from the Piraki Lookout, head to Te Pa’ata on the backroads of Mangaia or on top of a makatea cliff at the Maumaukura lookout also on Mangaia. We list all the lookouts to hit on these two islands in the 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Aitutaki and 10 Free Things to Do on Mangaia.
9. Cycle Across the Islands
This activity is free if you happen to stay at an accommodation with cycle hire included – just check out the 10 Accommodations in the Cook Islands with Bike Hire. Cycling can be a relaxing way to explore at least part of the island you’re staying on thanks to the relatively short cycling distances, as listed in The Cycling Times & Distances in the Cook Islands.
10. Enjoy the Singing of a Sunday Church Service
The powerful harmonies echoing across the churches on a Sunday is an experience not to be missed. Don your most church-appropriate attire (cover knees and shoulders) and head to one of the churches across the Cook Islands, typically with a 10am service. This is a free thing to do in the Cook Islands, but you may be asked for a small donation (tithe). For recommendations of churches to visit, check out the 10 Best Churches in the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
11. Swim in the Sinkholes on Atiu
More crazy makatea formations in the Cook Islands, this one can be found on the island of Atiu. At low tide, find three picturesque sinkholes west of Takauroa Beach and east of Matai Landing. When the falling tide empties through the sinkholes you’re left with all sorts of colourful fish temporarily trapped in your own natural aquarium. That’s why they also call this place the “Coral Garden“. Learn more about it in the 10 Free Things to Do on Atiu.
12. Enjoy Some Reef Walks
Again, on the makatea islands of Mangaia, Atiu, Mitiaro and Mauke, the reef is so close to shore (in fact, there is no lagoon) that reef walking is a possible and fun free thing to do. At low tide, walk in knee-deep crystal clear water and look at all kinds of fish and crayfish clinging to the jagged makatea. We list some excellent reef walks in the 10 Free Things to Do on Atiu and 15 Best Things to Do on Mitiaro.
13. Check Out the Art Galleries on Rarotonga
The Cooks Islander culture and marine environment are the main inspiration for art across the Cook Islands and particularly in Rarotonga which is home to the nation’s only art galleries. Pop into The Little Red Gallery, the Bergman Gallery, Two Mamas Gallery, The Art Box and more while exploring the island. See what makes each gallery worth visiting in the 5 Best Art Galleries in the Cook Islands.
14. Drive Through a Banyan Tree or “Makatea”
There are some interesting road trips to be found all over the Cook Islands – just check out some of our Day Trip ideas for self-guided road trips. But on the islands of Aitutaki and Mangaia, there are some awesome natural attractions to drive through. On Aitutaki, a banyan tree arches across the road and makes for a fun photo opportunity between Vaipae and Tautu villages. Meanwhile, many of the roads on Mangaia literally cut through the “makatea” of the island making you feel like you’re caving in your car or scooter! Learn more about the locations of these features in the 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Aitutaki and 10 Free Things to Do on Mangaia.
15. Scout Out the Shipwrecks
Who doesn’t like to see spooky shipwreck sites?! In the Cook Islands, there are many with the most popular being the Matai Shipwreck seen just off the shore of Avarua on Rarotonga – see the 10 Best Things to Do in Avarua. On Mangaia, you’ll see the Saragossa Shipwreck scattered across the reef on the southern coast – see the 10 Free Things to Do on Mangaia, while the more recently wrecked Te Kou on Mauke is an interesting addition to the Tukume Beach! The location can be found in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mauke.
16. Do Some Birdwatching
While the marine life in the Cook Islands tends to steal all of the limelight, our little feathered friends shouldn’t be forgotten. There are around eight endemic bird species in the Cook Islands and are actually easy to spot if you know where to go! Luckily, we’ve curated the 7 Best Places for Bird Watching in the Cook Islands so you, indeed, know where to go!
17. Look Out for Whales from Shore
Between July and October, the flukes of humpback whales can be seen diving into the deep beyond the reef. While it’s possible to spot whales from any shore of the Cook Islands, some of the best places include the resorts and accommodations lining the beach in Arorangi on Rarotonga, as well as the west coast of Aitutaki. See where else to do some whale spotting for free in the 10 Best Places for Whale Watching in the Cook Islands.
18. Hit the Best Sunrise and Sunset Spots
Some of life’s simple pleasures, like watching the sunrise and sunset, are worth enjoying in the Cook Islands. The vibrant hues across the Pacific Ocean are bound to take your breath away! Head to one of the stunning east coast beaches listed in the 10 Best Places to Watch the Sunrise or even watch the sunset from a height on one of the short mountain climbs listed in the 10 Best Places to Watch the Sunset.
19. Kick Back with Some Stargazing
When night falls and the sky is clear, the universe puts on the most mesmerising show made all the clearer thanks to the Cook Islands’ limited light pollution. Head out on the beach or simply look up from your accommodation on a clear night and enjoy the display. If you can time your visit between late April and late May, the Cook Islands even capture amazing views of the Eta Aquariids meteor shower. See the 5 Best Spots for Stargazing in the Cook Islands for specific locations.
20. Hit the Cook Islands’ Biggest Events
The Cook Islands has a lively annual event calendar allowing you to experience the vibrant Cook Islander culture for free! See parades and beauty pageants in the Te Mire Tiare Flower Festival, watch outrigger canoe racing at the Vaka Eiva Festival, see the “round the island dance” of Aitutaki’s Koni Raoni at New Year and Christmas, and much more! Check out the 10 Biggest Festivals in the Cook Islands and The Top Events & Festivals in the Cook Islands for ideas.
More Free Things to Do in the Cook Islands
While that’s the list of the most generic free things to do in the Cook Islands, if you want more specific free attractions to see and activities to do, check out the following lists:
- 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Rarotonga
- 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Aitutaki
- 10 Free Things to Do on Mangaia
- 10 Free Things to Do on Atiu
Finally, see how the free stuff compares to all of the stuff in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List. Plus, plan the rest of your frugal itinerary using the Budget & Backpacking Itinerary for 14 Days, Budget & Backpacking Itinerary for 10 Days, 7 Days, 5 Days and 3 Days.