Australia is not the most budget friendly destination on the planet; but hopefully, with a bit of help, I can show you that you can have a wonderful adventure in North Queensland, Australia and be on a budget! This itinerary includes seeing loads of wildlife, scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, a day full of chasing waterfalls, and much more! There is also accommodation and food ideas.
I did almost this exact itinerary in May of 2019 with my boyfriend. We rented a car from the Cairns International Airport and mostly stayed in hostels. The more flexible you are with your time and plans, the more money you can save in this region of the world.
Day 1 – Arriving in Cairns
When arriving to Cairns, you will most likely arrive to the Cairns International Airport, which is located about 5km from the city center. I would suggest renting a car from there. If you plan to only be in Cairns to go scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef for a few days, you could get around without a car. But if you would like to follow this itinerary and explore the beautiful area surrounding Cairns, you’ll need a car. We booked a rental car online before arriving from Alamo in the airport for a week and it cost about $240 AUD (about $162 USD). That is about $22 USD per day ($11 per person per day).
Depending on what time you arrive in Cairns, you can either spend the afternoon enjoying the beautiful weather or could start making your way north to the Daintree Rainforest. Since we arrived in Cairns at 6pm, we decided to just get a hostel room for the night then continue to the Daintree Rainforest bright and early.
We stayed at Caravella Backpackers hostel on our first night in Cairns since they offer free parking, self-catering facilities and are within walking distance to all the Cairns attractions.
Day 2- Daintree Rainforest
In the morning, start making your way North out of Cairns to visit the Daintree Rainforest. Take your time in getting there and taking in the scenic drive by stopping along the way at the viewpoints that overlook the ocean. You’ll soon realize you’re surrounded by wildlife as you start seeing signs warning of jellyfish, crocodiles, cassowaries and more dangerous animals!
Travel Tip: Try to see if you can see “Big Moe”, the huge, wild crocodile that likes to bask in the sun on the banks of the Mowbray River on the drive north from Cairns.
The first stop on the way to the Daintree Rainforest is Mossman Gorge. Mossman Gorge is a gorge on the Mossman River about 25 minutes from Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia. There is a beautiful swimming hole here. While it is technically “free”, you cannot access the gorge by foot and have to take the shuttle from the Mossman Gorge Centre. The shuttle costs $11.80 AUD (about $8.02 USD) for a roundtrip ticket. This shuttle departs every 15 minutes to take you to the gorge.
The Mossman Gorge Centre also has an indigenous art gallery, a gift shop, bathroom, shower facilities, and a small cafe and restaurant. The Mossman Gorge Centre also offers guided Dreamtime walking tours. These tours cost $78 AUD (about $53 USD) for an adult and help give you a deeper insight into the ancient plants of the Daintree Rainforest and learn about the indigenous culture of the area. They have several tours a day. The Dreamtime walking tour lasts about an hour and a half. At the Mossman Gorge Centre, you can also learn about a few self-guided walks (better for the budget friendly people out there!) They can provide you with a map for the four different self-guided (and free) walks they offer.
Travel Tip: If you are on a strict budget, like we are, stop at the grocery store on your to the Daintree Rainforest. There is a good size Woolworths in Mossman that will have everything you need! The further north you go, the less options you will have for grocery stores and restaurants.
Crossing the Daintree River
After Mossman Gorge, you will be in the Southern area of the Daintree Rainforest. You will need to take a ferry across the Daintree River to get to the northern area. This ferry costs $30 AUD (about $20.39 USD) per car for a roundtrip ticket (as of late 2019). The ferry can fit a maximum of 40 vehicles! This only takes a few minutes to cross, but you might have to wait to let all the people crossing from the other side get off. While you are waiting, keep an eye out for some crocodiles! Just do not get too close to the water; they could be much closer than you would expect!
The Daintree Rainforest Ice Cream Company is a must visit for anyone visiting the Daintree area. This organic ice cream is made by hand on site in small batches based on the season and what is growing. Daintree Rainforest Ice Cream Co. is open 11am – 5pm daily (except Christmas). You could buy your ice cream and then go sit directly next to the plant that grew the flavor. Also, make sure you take the time to do their self-guided walking tour around their orchard to see how different fruits and vegetables from around the world are grown!
After filling up on ice cream, head to Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation is where the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree National Park meet making it the only location where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet! Cape Tribulation is the furthest north you can go with a car; the road literally ends here! It is a beach area, although you shouldn’t swim there since there are saltwater crocodiles lingering in the area. It is beautiful area to jump out of the car and do a some hiking.
Travel Tip: Take care while hiking in the Daintree Rainforest area. While it is beautiful, there are many dangerous animals lingering within the beauty. Never jump into rivers or swim in the beaches as saltwater crocodiles and boxed jellyfish could be close. If you want to go swimming, make sure to do it at the hotel/hostel pool. There are also many snakes including pythons, beautiful yet dangerous cassowary birds, mosquitos, leeches, and ticks. Just be careful where you step and be aware of your surroundings.
If you’re open to having a little adventure when staying in the Daintree Rainforest, I would recommend staying the night at Daintree Crocodylus. This eco lodge has the nicest owners and is set in the middle of the rainforest. It is also really great if you’re on a budget. They have dorm rooms, like a hostel, and private rooms- all of which are large tents. Daintree Crocodylus also has a swimming pool, free wifi, self-catering facilities and free board games to play! There is also a bar and small restaurant on site. There is free parking on site for you to park your rental car. I was a bit worried at first about sleeping in a tent, but it was like almost halfway to glamping. Hearing the rainforest just come alive at night was incredible.
After exploring the Cape Tribulation I would suggest calling it an evening and get ready for the second day exploring the Daintree Rainforest!
Day 3- Daintree Rainforest to Atherton Tablelands
Leaving the Daintree Rainforest area, start heading south toward the Atherton Tablelands for your night in Yungaburra. But you’re not done with your Daintree adventures just yet. In the morning, start by visiting Cow Bay Beach.
Visit Cow Bay Beach
If you are going to stay at the Daintree Crocodylus, take some time in the morning and go to the Cow Bay Beach at the end of the road. It is a beautiful beach you can walk along. Just remember do not actually go swimming in the ocean because of the saltwater crocodiles.
This is something that I wish we would have done; for $35 AUD (about $23.78) you can access the Daintree Discovery Centre. For this you can climb to the top of their 23 meter lookout tower, and the 11 meter high sky walkway along the rainforest canopy. Your entry ticket also includes a free self-guided audio tour (available in 8 languages).
Crocodile Boat Tour
If you do one thing in Daintree make sure it is a crocodile boat tour! Cross back over the river on the ferry for a crocodile tour on the Daintree River. These are reasonably priced for what you will get! While there are many 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 many, many 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 many salt water crocs!
Travel Tip: Book your tickets with Crocodile Express Daintree Cruises on their website online to save 10%!
After the crocodile boat tour, start heading south to the Atherton Tableland area to see platypus, waterfalls, and the amazing curtain fig tree! From Daintree town to Yungaburra it should take about 2 hours. Keep your eyes peeled on the way as we saw a group of more than 100 kangaroos on the way to Yungaburra.
We decided to stay in Yungaburra, which is a quiet town, but in the evening you can spot platypuses! We stayed at On the Wallaby hostel for one night and ended up making it two nights. The owner was so kind and the hostel is so unique with all of its eco-friendliness. It also has free parking and self-catering facilities which is a bonus. We really enjoyed our stay there. They also offer some fun canoeing and motorbike tours around the Atherton Tablelands. The owner also showed us how and where to see the platypuses that live in Yungaburra.
Day 4- Waterfall Day
Wake up early in Yungaburra for your long day of exploring waterfalls! I would begin this waterfall road trip by visiting the famous Curtain Fig Tree. This tree is on the drive out of town from Yungaburra. I originally did not want to stop to see a silly tree, but oh my goodness! This tree is absolutely incredible. It is definitely worth a quick 5 minute stop to see this 500+ year old enormous tree!
For those of you who cannot travel without a map, like me, here is a map version of the waterfalls and other spots mentioned below:
Waterfall #1 – Malanda Falls
The first waterfall is right off the road and down just a few stairs to get to it. It is a great place for a swim. Malanda Falls is not the most impressive waterfall of the day but it’s a great place to start and go for a swim if it’s already super hot!
Travel Tip: Beware of leeches while swimming in the water around these waterfalls. Since it was raining so much when we went, we did not go swimming everywhere; however, the places we did had leeches. Other travelers also warned us about the leeches too, so just be careful.
Waterfall #2 – Millaa Millaa Falls
Millaa Millaa Falls and the next two waterfalls are quite well known on the waterfall circuit. Because of this, they will be more crowded than the other waterfalls. If you were to close your eyes and imagine a waterfall, I’m sure you’re picturing Millaa Millaa waterfall. It is a beautiful, classic waterfall. Many people (and tour groups) come to this waterfall for a swim. This waterfall area is so popular there are toilets and changing rooms available for the visitors.
Waterfall #3 – Zillie Falls
This massive waterfall has a viewpoint from the top and there is also a hike down to the bottom of the falls. We did it in the pouring rain. I can’t say I would suggest making your way to the bottom on a very rainy day. It was extremely steep and very slippery! But if you happen to be there on a dry day, make sure you hike down to the bottom the waterfall. The massive volume of water pounding on the rocks is deafening. It does not look that huge in the photos, but this waterfall is ginormous with such a large volume of water flowing through it.
Waterfall #4 – Ellinjaa Falls
Ellinjaa Falls is the 3rd very well known waterfall on the Atherton Tablelands waterfall circuit that will have a lot of other tourists visiting. It is another beautiful waterfall that you can swim at. At this point in the waterfall circuit you will be leaving behind the majority of the tourists and heading to lesser known waterfalls.
Waterfall #5 – Mungalli Falls
I would consider Mungalli Falls two separate waterfalls. Once you get to the carpark, you will realize this place is more like a restaurant and education center house. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place! The top half of the waterfall is by the car park (pictured on the left) and then if you walk through their outdoor education center across the bridge and down the big hill, you will find the larger steeper waterfall (pictured on the right). It read it would take about 40 minutes to walk there so we almost didn’t go, but that ended up being a bit of an overestimation. I think it only took 15 minutes for us walking downhill; however, uphill definitely took more time.
Waterfall #6 – Nandroya Falls
It is a longer hike than the others to get to this waterfall. We really had no idea what this waterfall was going to look like and were debating on even going because it’s about 4 miles there and back and we had a lot more waterfalls to see that day! But I am so glad we did because this might have been my favorite of all the waterfalls we saw that day. This waterfall is so tall and there is so much water flowing through. It is incredible! Definitely worth the hike to it!
Waterfall #6 Bonus – Silver Creek Falls
On the hike to Nandroya Falls, you will also pass Silver Creek Falls. This is a smaller waterfall, but beautifully enchanting in the woods on the way to the big Nandroya falls.
Waterfall #7 – Tchupala Falls
This waterfall, and waterfall #8 – Wallicher Falls below, are both from the same car park. From the car park, you start on the trail and take a right to visit Tchupala Falls. This walk is about 20 minutes to the falls through the woods. When we got to the platform, it seemed there was some construction going on where the old staircase was to go down to the falls. Hopefully it will be open when you visit to be able to go further down to the waterfall.
Waterfall #8 – Wallicher Falls
This waterfall is about a 15 minute walk from the same car park as Tchupala falls. From the car park, you start on the trail and take a left to visit Wallicher Falls. This waterfall you can only really see from a distance, but it’s a stunning, and loud, landscape!
Waterfall #9 – Davies Creek Falls
This is the last waterfall in the area of Yungaburra and the Atherton Tablelands. We finished out the day with Davies Creek Falls for a nice last swim and hike. There is also an incredible, enormous sinkhole/cave impression in the ground there which was an added surprise!
Waterfall #10 – Barron Falls
This waterfall is quite famous and close to Cairns, so you could also save it for the next day when you’re back in Cairns. Barron Falls has a total height of 125 meters (410 feet!) and a width of 259 meters (850 feet!). We were there in the dry season so it was just a trickle, but still quite impressive with how far it drops down! It can be really gushing full of water during the wet season.
Bonus Waterfalls – Emerald Creek Falls & Wallaman Falls
If you can fit it in, I would suggest trying to add in either Emerald Creek Falls or Wallaman Falls (or both if you’re not waterfalled-out yet!). Emerald Creek Falls is similar to Davies Creek Falls, with swimming areas and a nice little walking trail. Wallaman Falls seems like an epic waterfall! But it is much further south than the others on this list. It is about a four hour drive from Cairns and about a three hour drive from the waterfall closest to this list (Tchupala Falls). But they have a nice campground and hiking trails I would love to go see!
Hopefully that will be the most waterfalls you will ever see in one day! I suggest staying this night at On the Wallaby hostel again and heading out to Cairns in the morning.
Day 5- Head to Cairns
After being worn out from the full day of visiting waterfalls, start making your way back to Cairns. If you’re a budget backpacker, like I am, finding affordable places to scuba dive can be a challenge. So when a fellow traveler told me about this creative way to dive in the Great Barrier Reef for next to nothing, I knew I had to try it!
Visit Divers Den
Divers Den is one of the best companies in the North Queensland area to dive the Great Barrier Reef with. They have boats going to different reefs within the Great Barrier Reef almost everyday of the year from Cairns. 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 Divers Den has this 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 diving for free! All you have to do is buy a t-shirt for $25 USD that you can use to volunteer over and over again. This includes renting all the equipment you would need for diving and 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.
I would highly suggest visiting the Divers Den office in Cairns, Australia as soon as you get off the plane. 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. We visited the morning after we arrived and they did not have availability until 5 days out. 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.
The day before you go diving, you need to either call Divers Den or make a quick stop to the office in Cairns to make sure all your paperwork is in order and that the boat will for sure be going to the GBR in the morning. Very poor weather or if there aren’t enough people signed up to run the boat could cause cancellations.
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.
You can spend the rest of your day enjoying the Cairns area. I recommend 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.
Day 6- Diving in the Great Barrier Reef by Volunteering with Divers Den
This is a day that will stay in your memories forever. You wake up early and get to the Divers Den office around 7 am. Then you get in their shuttle to the harbor and board the boat. From there you are instructed to start help setting up the breakfast snacks, coffee, and tea. The customers arrive at the boat around 8 am. The captain gives a safety speech to everyone aboard.
After serving the light breakfast, when the boat starts moving, you will get fitted into your wetsuit, BCD, snorkel, mask and fins. Then you’ll get briefed on scuba diving in the region and refamiliarize yourself with the equipment if you haven’t dived in a while. Then it is back to work preparing for lunch on the ride out to the first dive spot. Once everything is prepared, you can get your scuba gear on and get with your buddy for your first dive of the day. Our first dive was a bit shorter as I was a bit anxious and ran out of air faster than my boyfriend.
When you finish your dive, you’ll probably do a quick check on if the bathrooms need cleaning and then finish preparing lunch. Once everyone aboard eats lunch, you can then eat too before cleaning up (i.e. doing all the dishes and collecting cups from around the boat). The boat then moves to its second location for the day and if all the volunteers are completed with lunch clean up, you can go on a second dive. Somedays this might not happen if the boat is full and if it takes you too long to finish clean up. We were lucky and got to take another dive in the second location. This dive was my perfect dive! I was much calmer so we got to dive for 45 minutes!
After your second dive, it is time for the boat to go back to the harbor. This will take about 1-2 hours, depending on the waves of the day. During this time, we filled out our dive books from the data from the day and started cleaning for the end of the day. Once all of the customers of the day leave the boat, you help vacuum, take the trash out, wash the windows, and clean up the food. You should be finished and back at the Divers Den office around 4:30-5:00 pm.
One of the other volunteers we were with was volunteering for 4 days total! That’s $25 USD for 4 days of diving! Such an incredible deal.
Day 7- Exploring Cairns / Departure
Here are some final budget friendly ways to spend the last day before your flight departs.
Cairns Botanic Gardens are located only 4km outside of Cairns. It is free to visit, but they ask for a donation to keep the gardens running. It features 38 hectares of native Australian gardens and many plants that you will not be able to find anywhere else in the world.
If you feel inspired by your snorkeling and diving in the Great Barrier Reef, you can head to the Cairns Aquarium to see even more aquatic creatures. This is a bit less budget friendly since it costs $42 AUD (about $28.66 USD) for adult admission to the aquarium, but you can see crocodiles, sharks, sting rays and more up close and personal. It also features a huge 10 meter deep tank, a 20 meter underwater tunnel, and a mangrove boardwalk.
The Cairns Night Market is open daily from 5-11pm right along the boardwalk by the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. The stalls offer food, souvenirs and much, much more. You can simply windowshop and enjoy the atmosphere.
Hopefully you’ve found a few budget friendly ideas for your trip to Cairns. Let me know if you have any questions below and safe travels 🙂
Other Things To Do Around Cairns
I would suggest spending at least a week in the Cairns area with a rental car exploring Northern Queensland, Australia. Here are some other fun things to do while visiting the Cairns area: