If you’ve ever driven down I-95 through the Carolinas, there’s absolutely no way you haven’t heard of South of the Border. As you drive down the highway, there are over 250 billboards spanning from New Jersey to Florida lauding the vast array of Mexican-theme attractions at the park.
As you get closer to Dillon, South Carolina, the billboards become more and more frequent until every half-mile you’re seeing massive images of South of the Border’s mascot Pedro riding on fireworks, serving up hot dogs, or wrestling an alligator.
South of the Border is the epitome of trashy American roadside attractions. Originally opening as a beer store in 1949, the park has expanded to encompass over 350 acres, all of which are filled with Mexican-themed statues, activities, restaurants, and accommodations. The whole thing is a little on the nose, to put it lightly.
While driving from New Jersey to Florida, I made a pit stop at South of the Border. Whether intentional or not, the cryptic and largely uninformative billboards elicit a sense of mystery around the location.
Is it a hotel? Is it a taco stand? Is it an amusement park? I had to know. The answer is that it’s all of the above.
Here’s what I found:
What Is South of the Border?
If you visit South of the Border, or even if you cruise right by it down I-95, your first experience with the park will be the giant sombrero-shaped tower that stands over 200 feet tall. The tower looms over the highway like a derogative UFO and lets passersby know that there are still places in the USA where you can still let racial stereotypes shine proudly.
If the giant sombrero didn’t make you cringe enough, visitors to South of the Border are greeted by a 97-foot-tall caricature of a Mexican bandito that you have to drive through to park your car. This is Pedro, the official mascot of the park whose face appears on nearly every building in the complex.
In terms of things to do within South of the Border, of course, you have the Sombrero Tower, which features an observation deck offering beautiful views of the long stretch of highway next to the park.
There’s also Pedroland Park, an amusement park with a carousel, bumper cars, mini-golf, roller coasters, and a picnic area, all covered with probably-racist images of Pedro.
If the tone-deaf images of Mexican banditos weren’t enough to set off your moral alarm system, head on over to the Reptile Lagoon. Here you’ll find crocodiles and alligators living in small, unsanitary enclosures, and snakes living in glass containers no larger than shoeboxes!
Want to have your faith in humanity shaken to its core? Reptile Lagoon is your place, and for just $8.00!
Of course, if you’re going to build a massive tourist attraction on the side of the highway, you have to have ample options for dining, and South of the Border doesn’t disappoint.
There are a bunch of different restaurants speckled throughout the property that offer culinary experiences ranging from “pretty subpar, but hey, what did you expect” to “wow, that’s actually surprisingly not terrible”.
The first restaurant you’ll see upon entering the park is the Hot Tamale. Open from 6 a.m. to midnight every day of the week, the Hot Tamale is a cafeteria-style dining room that offers food you might expect to find at a minor league baseball game.
I’m talking about chili dogs, corn dogs, cheesesteaks, and cheeseburgers. If you were planning to 7-Eleven taquito anyway, you might as well go to the Hot Tamale.
If you’re looking for something slightly on the higher end, you can eat at the Sombrero Restaurant, featuring a mix of Mexican and Southern cuisine. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a Tex-Mex joint with a neon sign.
You also have the Peddler Steakhouse, the classiest offering you can find in the campy Mexican-themed park. They have steaks, chicken breasts, salads, and seafood. Now, I chose not to eat any seafood at this roadside tourist trap, but I’ve heard the tuna steak is actually pretty good.
Pedro’s Ice Cream Fiesta is a great place to get your kids a few scoops of ice cream while simultaneously exposing them to offensive stereotypes of Mexican people. The mint chocolate chip is pretty good.
South of the Border also has a gas station, a truck stop, and several convenience stores. Pedro’s Pantry is a grocery store with two separate locations on the premises. If you need to buy some food for the rest of your road trip, take a shower in the strangest bathing scenario imaginable, or fill up your gas tank, South of the Border will provide.
There are also endless knick-knacks and gag gifts to buy in South of the Border’s many novelty stores.
Pedro’s Myrtle Beach Shop is a beach-themed shop with inflatable toys and bathing suits. Pedro’s Pura Vida has a strange combination of leather goods and motocross accessories. Pedro’s T-Shirt Shop has, well, t-shirts.
The East and West Mexico Shops offer the same kind of items you might find being sold on the beaches in Cancun, without all the hassle of actually going to Mexico! Fort Pedro Fireworks has a massive selection of fireworks, many of which have probably been set off in the parking lot just outside.
If you absolutely love the drug-induced nightmarish ambiance of South of the Border and just don’t want to leave, you can stay overnight at the Motor Inn for as long as you like.
The History of South of the Border
Back in 1949, the sale of alcohol was banned in Robeson County, North Carolina, and the locals were getting fed up. So, in response, Alan Schafer moved just over the state line and opened up South of the Border Beer Depot, a pink cinder block building.
Not long after, Schafer added a small motel to his complex, and the name became simply South of the Border.
After a trip to Mexico in which he brought back two Mexican employees to staff his motel, Schafer decided that he wanted to establish a Mexican theme throughout his entire business. Back then, when cultural insensitivity was the status quo, patrons of South of the Border had no problem with referring to both of Schafer’s Mexican employees as “Pedro,” which was neither of their names.
Thus, the Pedro mascot was born, and somehow still exists.
In the years after Schafer established South of the Border, it continued to grow into the massive complex it is today. At this point, it’s almost like its own little tongue-in-cheek town with no plans to stop expanding.
There’s a post office, a barber shop, a drugstore, and even a security force that gives off intimidating police-like vibes.
Is This Racist?
Yeah, it’s totally racist. Before you condemn Alan Schafer as being entirely bigoted, however, you should know that there was a time when he was being threatened and intimidated by the Ku Klux Klan for hiring black employees.
Instead of giving in to their demands and firing his black workers, he retained all of his black employees and even hired more. So, I guess, in that instance, Alan Schafer was a proponent of civil rights progress.
On the whole, though, South of the Border has been promoting offensive cultural stereotypes for more than 70 years at this point. And in the year 2021, it’s pretty mind-boggling that this place still exists.
The park is now under the ownership of Alan’s son Richard and his grandson Ryan, who have failed to adjust their business to the modern age and fix the problems of cultural insensitivity that permeate every square foot of South of the Border.
What exactly would fixing those problems look like? It’s hard to say. It would probably involve tearing down every brick and offensive plaster statue in South of the Border and then rebuilding it under a new name as something entirely different.
If your visit to South of the Border doesn’t quench your thirst for bizarre tourist traps, here are six other weird tourist attractions you can add to the itinerary.