Most roller coasters are categorized as either “wood” or “steel,” but the Montaña Suiza (Swiss Mountain) is not like most roller coasters. Located at the Monte Igueldo Amusement Park in San Sebastián, Spain, the ride (also known as Mendiko Trena, or “Mountain Train” in the region’s native Basque language) was built by Erich Heidrich in 1928. This makes it the only surviving pre-WWII roller coaster left in southern Europe. It is also one of a handful of remaining “scenic railway”-style roller coasters in the world, meaning it runs on railroad-style steel rails with an on-board brakeman to control the ride’s speed.
Perched atop the Igueldo mountains, the Montaña Suiza overlooks the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay along Spain’s northern coast. After a gentle set of dips at the beginning of the ride, the track curves precipitously close along a steep drop-off, with seemingly nothing between riders and the ocean waves some 180 meters (600 feet) below. The wooden cars, free of any restraints or seatbelts (and with the speed checked by the brakemen, lest it go careening off the track!) are then hoisted by a cable lift up to the highest point of the layout. This is immediately followed by the ride’s largest drop into an underground tunnel before returning to the station, providing a rousing finale to a classic coaster that has doubtlessly generated countless sweaty palms and polyglot curse words over its century of service.
Unlike the other scenic railway coasters, which are built atop a wooden superstructure and track bed (and thus classified as traditional “wood coasters”), the Montaña Suiza contours to the mountainous landscape, with a concrete track bed and stone viaducts for the elevated portions. Some still categorize it as a “wood coaster” like the other scenic railways, despite the only wood being in the guardrails and dragon-headed ride vehicles. Others call it a “steel coaster” because of the steel rails, but this would technically make it the world’s oldest such installation, despite the rails being identical to every other wooden scenic railway that came before it. In reality, the Montaña Suiza is probably best thought of as the world’s first and only “masonry roller coaster.”
Regardless of its construction technique, the Montaña Suiza still thrills riders nearly a century after its initial debut. It reaches a top speed of about 50 kilometers per hour (31.1 mph) from a 9.8-meter (32-foot) drop, so it can’t compete with the 180 kilometer-per-hour (111.8 mph) speed of Spain’s fastest roller coaster (Red Force in Catalonia’s Ferrari Land). But it’s hard to beat the breathtaking and vertigo-inducing views experienced atop the Montaña Suiza, which may be the most spectacular among any roller coaster ever built.
Know Before You Go
Montaña Suiza is found at Parque de Atracciones Monte Igueldo in San Sebastián, Spain. Getting to it requires taking a 1912 funicular railroad to the top of the mountain where the amusement park and a historic lighthouse-turned-lookout tower are located. There is also a road for passenger vehicles to the top. The rides operate daily throughout the summer, as well as most weekends and holiday periods during colder seasons. Individual tickets for the funicular, lookout tower, and rides including the Montaña Suiza itself are priced around two to three Euros each.