Cairns is a coastal city in Northern Queensland, Australia. The area surrounding Cairns is full of wildlife and beautiful nature, in both the sea and land, just waiting for an adventure. The area is home to the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Atherton Tablelands and much more! Northern Queensland is not to be missed on a trip to Australia. Here are 5 fun, budget friendly things to do while visiting the Cairns area.
1. Diving and Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef
This may seem odd for a budget as these activities are normally quite expensive, but if you can be a bit flexible with your time, there is a way you can go diving in the Great Barrier Reef if you are on a tight budget! Typically, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef with snorkeling or diving costs about $135-250 USD, depending on which company you choose and how many dives you would like to do.
Divers Den is one of the best companies in the Cairns area to dive with. They have boats going to different reefs within the Great Barrier Reef almost everyday of the year from Cairns and also have boats leaving from Port Douglas. This is where you can dive in the Great Barrier Reef on a tight budget. To go on a day trip from Cairns with Divers Den to the Great Barrier Reef, it typically costs about $185 USD, which includes two dives and lunch.
But wait! Divers Den has a special option where you can volunteer on their boat and dive for free! In exchange for serving food and cleaning some of the bathrooms on the boat you can be scuba diving (or snorkeling) for free! All you have to do is buy a t-shirt for $25 USD. This shirt can be used for you to volunteer over and over again while you are staying in Cairns. So if you are in the area for a week or more you can scuba dive a ton for free! This includes all the equipment rental you need for diving and also your lunch. While they do not advertise this option, or have any information about it on their website, if you arrive to the Cairns area, there are plenty of young backpackers taking advantage of this opportunity.
You need to visit the Divers Den office in Cairns, Australia as soon as you get off the plane in Cairns. There you can see their upcoming schedule and which days they need volunteers. Sometimes these may not be for a week out, so the sooner you get there and more flexible you are, the higher chance of volunteering you have. The more time you have, the more days you can go out on the boat with them. Once you have bought your shirt, every dive is free. They warn volunteers that you may not be able to do two dives every time you go out because they sometimes have so many customers to serve first.
Travel Tip: Make sure you have travel insurance that includes diving. I use Allianz Travel Insurance while traveling and my plan includes diving up to 18 meters. You will have to show proof of this travel insurance in the Divers Den office or purchase their insurance for your dives.
If you’d like more information on scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef on a budget you can read more here.
2. Chasing Waterfalls
In the area surrounding Cairns, there are many, many waterfalls. This area is called the Atherton Tablelands. You can see more than 10 beautiful, large waterfalls in one day if you wish. And the great thing about visiting waterfalls and hiking outside is that they are all free! All you need for this is a rental car which aren’t that expensive for a few days rental from the Cairns International Airport. We rented a car from Alamo in the airport for a week and it cost about $240 AUD (about $162 USD). That is about $22 USD per day. Here are the names of many of the famous waterfalls in the area:
- Malanda Falls
- Milla Milla Falls
- Zillie Falls
- Ellinjaa Falls
- Mungalli Falls
- Nandroya Falls
- Emerald Creek Falls
- Silver Creek Falls
- Tchupala Falls
- Wallicher Falls
- Davies Creek Falls
- Barron Falls
- Wallaman Falls
If you prefer a map version of the waterfalls you can look here:
While all of the waterfalls were beautiful, my favorite of the waterfalls of the day trip were Nandroya Falls, Davies Creek Falls, and Wallicher Falls. If we had more time, I would have made sure to visit Wallaman Falls.
If you’d like to learn more about where to stay, how to get around the waterfalls, and more detailed information about doing a day trip of waterfalls from Cairns, you can read more here.
3. See Wildlife
This part of Australia has some crazy wildlife. You can see wild crocodiles, cassowaries, platypus, pythons, and many more types of animals. Even if you don’t go seeking them, you will definitely be coming across wildlife.
In the area around Cairns you need to be careful for saltwater crocodiles. They are all over the area. It is advised not to swim in the ocean or in rivers as they can be lurking close by. But if you would like to see many on a boat tour, with the safety of a guide, there are many options. While there are various crocodile cruises in the area, I would suggest choosing Crocodile Express Daintree Cruises. You can get two croc boat tours for the price of one! We went with Crocodile Express Daintree Cruises and had a great time seeing plenty of crocodiles, a few beautiful birds, and even a python! With Crocodile Express Daintree Cruises, you get to do two different boat tours. One is in the lower Daintree right by where the ferry crossing is, and then another is a 15 minute drive away in the town of Daintree. Each boat tour lasts about an hour and you can do one right after the other. Our ticket was $30 AUD ($19.78 USD) for the two tours. While you can do them in either order, we started with the tour that leaves from Daintree town. You will definitely see some salt water crocs!
Travel Tip: Book your tickets with Crocodile Express Daintree Cruises on their website online to save 10%!
Cassowaries are an elusive creature in the North Queensland area. They are a 60kg large bird, making them the third largest bird in the world! Truly a remarkable creature to see. One of the best places to see them is Mission Beach, about 2 hours south of Cairns. You can also see them north of Cairns in the Daintree Rainforest. The best time of day to see them is in the morning around a water source. Just make sure you do not approach them or their chicks as they can be quite dangerous creatures.
If you’d like to see a platypus, one of the best spots near Cairns is in Yungaburra (about 1 hour from Cairns), preferably in the early morning or evening right around sunset. They are such a cute a little creature. Seeing one I was surprised at how tiny they are. In Yungaburra there is a small viewing platform. If you’re looking to go further south from Cairns, the well-known place to see platypuses is in Eungella National Park.
4. Visit the Daintree Rainforest
The Daintree Rainforest is a marvelous rainforest in Northern Queensland, Australia. If you will be visiting the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns area, I suggest spending a couple of days visiting the Daintree Rainforest. Did you know the Daintree Rainforest is supposedly the oldest tropical rainforest in the world? They think it is over 130 million years old! That is incredible! It is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Get ready to be surrounded by wildlife and ancient rainforest for your visit to the Daintree Rainforest. Here are some budget-friendly ideas to do while visiting the Daintree Rainforest:
- Mossman Gorge
- Daintree Rainforest Ice Cream Company
- Crossing the Daintree River
- Cape Tribulation
- Cow Bay Beach
- Daintree Discovery Centre
- Crocodile Boat Tour
If you’d like to learn more about where to stay, how to get around the Daintree area, and more detailed information about things to do in the Daintree, you can read more here.
5. Visit Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
One last great way to spend a day in Cairns is by visiting the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. This is a huge public saltwater swimming pool on the coast of the ocean in the Cairns city centre. This pool is massive, about 48000 sq meters (about 15,700 sq feet) and absolutely free! They have really great areas around the pool to lounge, read, and enjoy the sun. They also have clean bathrooms and showers by the pool. There is also many restaurants surrounding the area. But to be even more budget friendly, you can walk to the local Woolworths (grocery store) and have a little picnic by the ocean and pool.