By Claudine Moore, for CNN
(CNN) — Cameroon, famous for producing world-class soccer players and infectious “makossa” music, is on the dawn of becoming known for something else … tourism.
Tourism arrivals grew by 35% in 2012, and Cameroon has a vast geographical diversity characterized by forest, savannah and mountains, alongside a population of over 250 ethnic groups.
Its diversity in terrain and culture has led to Cameroon being referred to as “Little Africa” or “All Africa in one country.” It also boasts some of the richest and most diverse wildlife in the continent and is a dreamland for safari lovers, eco tourists, hikers and culture seekers.
On a recent trip to Cameroon I spoke with Bello Bouba Maigari, the minister of tourism and leisure, who is championing the growth of tourism in the country. “If you mention Cameroon, very few people can look at a map and point out where the country is … our ambition is to be one of the best known and most attractive destinations in sub Saharan Africa,” he said.
I spent the majority of my trip in the coastal Southwest region, an area comprised of relaxing beaches, mountains, wildlife and cultural discoveries. Here are some of the area’s highlights.
Buea is the capital of the Southwest region, and home to the breathtaking and awe-inspiring Mount Cameroon, an active volcano that stands at over 13,200 feet (4,023 meters) above sea level. Officially the highest mountain in West and Central Africa, waking up at sunrise at foot of the mountain allows for a spectacularly clear view of the mountain, including the peak, which is an amazing sight to behold.
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Mount Cameroon provides an amazing hiking opportunity. The landscape ranges from tropical rainforest to savannah, and from a bare snow-capped summit to caves and waterfalls, as well as boasting rare birds and flowers. Hiking tours ranging from a few hours to a full three-day excursion, complete with a guide and someone to carry your bags, can be easily arranged locally for $120 – $150 per person.
Black sand beaches
If hiking is not your thing, then you might prefer relaxing in the picturesque town of Limbe, perfectly located between Mount Cameroon and the Atlantic Ocean.
Driving to Limbe you are surrounded by miles of lush greenery. With views of the Atlantic Ocean, clear blues skies and Mount Cameroon in the background the landscape is simply stunning and the photo opportunities endless. You will be jumping out of your vehicle several times to simply breathe in the amazing air and absorb the view.
Limbe is a popular area for tourists as there is so much to do in this pretty town. Wandering Limbe during the day you will find a picture-perfect busy town (exercise caution when crossing the busy streets) with friendly locals, cafes and the famous black sand beaches.
In the town I highly recommend sampling the roadside treats of freshly made French crepes, a throwback to the country’s French colonial past. The crepes are delicious — a popular and familiar treat for the Western palate.
The black sand beaches are home to beach lovers and local fisherman, and it is fascinating to sit back and watch the fishermen going about their chores. Be sure to ask before you take any pictures of the fisherman as they may not take kindly to the intrusion. Nevertheless, if you are lucky like I was, you could be taken on an impromptu and interesting tour of the area where the fish are cleaned, smoked and prepared to eat. The fish found in Limbe are mainly bar, ribbon and cuttle fish and are the freshest I have ever tasted.
Wildlife and tea
Limbe Botanic Gardens provide the opportunity to see rare flowers and walk amongst the 1,500 closely planted trees, many of which are medicinal. The abundance of trees and flowers makes the gardens a paradise for birds.
This is a great place to visit for the entire family; It has a large open-air arena where local traditional dancing and drumming take place, and the dancers actively encourage visitors to join in as they teach you traditional dance moves. There is also a wonderful arts and crafts store where you can buy incredible souvenirs from all over Cameroon.