South Of The Border: The Tourist Trap Your Parents Never Wanted To Stop At
A jovial fiberglass Mexican laughs at South of the Border, a Mexican-themed amusement park, hotel, gift shop, adult toy store, and neon-heavy rest stop on the North Carolina, South Carolina border, July 21, 2006. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)
Since the early 1960s, South of the Border has presented a challenge to all families making the trip south on I-95. Billboards with a cartoon mascot and punny jokes count down the miles to the attraction in Dillon, South Carolina. When the driver finally reaches the vicinity, there it is, viewable from the highway: A sprawling village of colorful faux-Mexican structures (including a massive sombrero high in the air) that looks like a fun theme park. It's not -- it's really just a rest stop with a dated, un-PC gimmick.
You can't tell that to the kids, though. They've been counting down the miles, chuckling at every bad joke on the billboards, and they're sure this overhyped place is a promised land of fun. The kids see Pedro as their new best friend, while the parents know Pedro exists to sell Pedro-themed trinkets and t-shirts. For decades, kids have wanted to stop at South of the Border, and knowing parents -- more interested in getting to the destination than stopping to play miniature golf or buy fireworks -- have tried to avoid it.
It's a landmark and an institution to be sure -- while there are other tourist traps out there, there’s not one that’s as gloriously outdated or tacky as South of the Border.
South of the Border started as an out of state beer haven
Long before it was a tourist trap worthy of national mention, South of the Border was just a beer stand called South of the Border Beer. Founded by Alan Schafer in 1949, the stand was established to serve people living in a dry country in North Carolina, just above the border. This was a smart move by Schafer, but his most brilliant move was a complete accident.
Constructed directly along what would become the I-95 corridor in the 1960s, anyone traveling between the two states had to pass by this unmissable road side attraction. Even if you didn’t stop, you weren’t going to forget it.
After I-95 the game changed
It only took a few years before South of the Border Beer was transformed into a smaller version of the South of the Border that still stands today. After traffic became a normal presence in the I-95 corridor, business took off for Schafer. He expanded the small operation to include a restaurant that fit 10 guests and built a motel with 20 rooms.
Schafer went on to add a miniature golf course, an RV campground, hundreds of more hotel rooms, a post office, wedding chapel, and even a volunteer fire department on top of knick-knack shops, firework stands, and more restaurants.
To cap it all off Schafer added an observation deck shaped like a sombrero where visitors can check out the surrounding landscape from the brim of the hat.
South of the Border is kitsch personified
Aside from the faux-Mexican design and acres of signage that surround South of the Border, it’s known for selling oodles upon oodles of cheap novelty items. Initially Schafer wasn’t planning on selling any items, he just wanted to offer food and lodging, but after he bought the entire inventory off of a traveling salesman offering plush bears he was able to move enough units to make a case for bringing in small items. Anyone driving through today is sure to find anything from novelty t-shirts, to mugs, sunglasses, and whatever you want. Just don’t expect anything from this gigantic truck stop to last for more than a couple of years.
Firework lovers flock to South of the Border
In the early ‘50s South of the Border was a haven for people who wanted to pick up some cold beer, today it’s where people go when they want to buy fireworks. Many tourists from states or counties where fireworks are illegal head to this area in order to pick up M-80s, Black Cats, or whatever their heart desires. Dan Marciano, a Virginia local, told the Post and Courier about his trip to “Rocket City” inside South of the Border:
We always stop to grab enough for the week. One of the best things about the beach here is setting off fireworks at night. The kids love it, and they look forward to coming to South of the Border for a little fun. It helps break up the trip.
This tourist trap is weirdly a haven of civil rights
Signs featuring phrases like “Pedro's Weather Report: Chili Today, Hot Tamale” and a giant sombrero may not sound like they belong to the kind of place that holds civil liberties as the utmost important part of being an America, but Alan Schafer felt that it was important to hire people of all colors to work at South of the Border.
During the racially explosive ‘50s and ‘60s, Schaffer made sure that South of the Border was desegregated and he hired many people of color to work at the burgeoning tourist trap. It’s clear that while Schafer definitely wasn’t politically correct, he also wasn’t an out and out racist.
South of the Border has had to reckon with its appropriation of Latinx culture
According to legend, the reason that South of the Border is so entrenched in the Mexican culture is because Schaffer paid a visit to the real south of the border in the late ‘50s and brought back two young men to work as bellboys whom he referred to as “Pedro” and “Poncho.” He soon added one of the most important additions to South of the Border, the tourist stop’s giant mascot.
The mascot, Pedro, is a large exaggeration of a Mexican bandit complete with a sombrero, poncho, and mustache. Aside from Pedro, South of the Border uses more than 200 billboards with slogans like “Pedro No Shoot Ze Bool” that stretch from Virginia to Georgia to beckon weary travelers and kitsch seekers alike. Clearly, that’s not how people from anywhere across the Latinx spectrum speaks, and as South of the Border moved into the 21st century its iconography ruffled some feathers.
It’s hard to ignore the racism on display at South of the Border, even if it wasn’t intended to be racist, but in the best of light this tourist trap is the kind of place where you can think about our country’s prejudiced history while immersing yourself in one of the weirder places in America.
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