HAMER, S.C. – You can see Pedro coming from 103 miles away. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” says the first of his billboards as you head south on Interstate 95. At 81 miles, he says he’ll be offering “Free air, water & advice.” From 65 miles, “A little razzle – a lot of dazzle!” Then, “You never sausage a place! You’re always a weiner at Pedro’s.” Finally, just south of the North Carolina-South Carolina border, he rises up from the highway: A 97-foot-tall caricature of a mustachioed Mexican man in a sombrero, a vision in neon at night. His legs are spread in a cowboy stance, just wide enough for cars to drive through them – I-95’s Colossus of Rhodes.
It’s hard to believe something like South of the Border, the tacky tourist trap that entices thousands of East Coast travelers like moths to a neon flame, still exists. It’s shabby, and looks every bit of its 67 years. Most fast food is better than the fare you’ll find there. Its rinky-dink amusement park won’t interest jaded kids on their way to Disney World or Universal Studios. With a mascot based on a racist stereotype of Mexicans, the whole place is about as politically correct as Donald Trump.
Which always made me wonder: Who goes there? People who need a bathroom break, of course. Families en route to Southern beach vacations. Families for whom South of the Border is the vacation. And people like me, who see the approach of that towering sombrero and can’t help but let their curiosity get the better of them.
There was a heyday for places such as this, when goofy, caricatured road stops built on a theme – pirates or dinosaurs, or more troublingly, Native Americans or Mexicans – were commonplace. Those were the days when people packed into wood-paneled station wagons and played games in the car instead of burying their faces in iPhones to hunt for Pokémon. But that heyday was decades ago. In this politically charged year, the place feels even more jarringly objectionable. Less likely to still be in business.
And yet, at night, when you see those neon lights shining like South Carolina’s version of the Las Vegas strip, there is something strangely magnetic about South of the Border. Everything shimmers – and you do, too, thanks to flashing signs that throw technicolor pink and green and blue onto every surface. No destination or sentiment is too small to be blared out in bright orange: “Hot Tamale”; “Reptile Lagoon”; “Motor Inn Registration.”
There are several attractions within the 135 acres of South of the Border, but the aforementioned Motor Inn was our entry point to this campy destination. Breaking up a drive to a family vacation, my husband and I pulled up under a sign for the hotel, with a few burned-out letters – ” OU of he BO D R” – to check in. The registration desk was adjacent to “Pedro’s Pleasure Dome,” which was not as lurid as it sounds – turns out it’s an overheated swimming pool under a geodesic dome that looks like a junkyard version of Buckminster Fuller’s. Inside, kids were splashing around in the steamy, chemical-scented water. Outside, in the lobby, a Jetsonsesque starburst chandelier loomed over us, a classic example of Googie-style architecture.
Googie – an architectural trend marked by America’s optimism for the Space Age – is just one of the art and architectural references we spotted. There’s also mimetic or novelty architecture – buildings that look like enormous objects, including a sombrero-shaped restaurant. And then there are scenes that give you fleeting impressions – of the color and style of great 1960s Southern photographer William Eggleston, of David Lynch’s cinematography, of the gas station and signage art of Ed Ruscha or the kitschy sculptures of Jeff Koons.
South of the Border began in 1949 as a roadside beer stand called South of the Border Depot, attracting business from dry counties in nearby North Carolina. It gradually expanded into a lunch counter, gas station and motel – and kept going, adding shops, an amusement park, reptile zoo, campground and several restaurants. The rest stop was one of the first in the South to welcome African-Americans as segregation began to fall. But that does not excuse the Mexican mascot – which, as the company’s history says, came about after owner Alan Schafer went to Mexico to establish his import business and brought back two young men to work as bellhops. The white clientele “started calling them Pedro and Pancho, and eventually just Pedro,” the history notes without apology, “and ‘Pedro’ ultimately became the attraction’s mascot.” At one point, billboards for South of the Border stretched all the way to Philadelphia and were all written by Schafer, who died in 2001, with puns that trafficked in racist stereotypes and mockery of Hispanic accents (Example: “Beeg Deal!” “Too Moch Tequila?”). Latino-Americans protested, and in 1993, the Mexican Embassy wrote an angry letter to Schafer. Eventually, he relented and the billboards – which now begin about halfway through North Carolina if you’re heading south on I-95 – have been edited down to generic dad jokes. The distasteful and insensitive Pedro colossus remains.
The attraction straddles both sides of U.S. Route 501, so pedestrian visitors have to cross the street using a bridge, which gives you a pretty good vantage point from which to survey the landscape. As we walked across, the distorted sound of carnival music wafted over from Pedroland Park, giving the whole place a quasi-nightmarish vibe. It was quiet on a Saturday night. On the other side, at the Reptile Lagoon attraction, an alligator – the only sign of life around, not counting the cars passing by on the highway – sunned itself under a heat lamp in a dark room, which had the same effect as a theatrical spotlight.
But after seven hours of driving, we were hungry. The sombrero-shaped building that contains the attraction’s fanciest restaurant – the Peddler Steakhouse – appealed to us, but inside, where two couples dressed more for a country club than a road trip were lingering over drinks, it was too quiet, and the steakhouse-style menu was more than we wanted to spend on a quick dinner. So we headed back over the bridge to the confusingly not-hat-shaped Sombrero Restaurant, where a less-subdued Mexican-themed restaurant awaited. The decor featured fake cacti, terra cotta and orange sombreros. Everything else was accented in lime green, including a salad bar that devoted a portion of its real estate to Jell-O. I ordered a margarita, a drink that arrived looking exactly like the emoji. The chicken sandwich was rubbery, but we couldn’t complain: beers were only $3 and our waitress called us both “Darlin.’ ” We returned to our low-slung hotel room, sparse and wood paneled and smelling overwhelmingly of disinfectant. It probably hadn’t been redecorated in at least three decades.
Despite its shabbiness, cameras love this place. Practically everything at South of the Border is a photo-op. Dozens of giant animal sculptures litter the grounds. Dolphins. Stallions. A T-rex. We took pictures of our dogs in front of the giant chickens, the giant dog and the giant ice cream cones.
South of the Border is kind of like a haunted house, or a one-night stand: Whatever illusion you had at night will vanish in the stark light of day. In the morning, we made our way to Pedro’s diner, which slung biscuit-and-egg breakfast sandwiches, with foam cups of jaw-achingly sweet tea and coffee that tasted like the inside of a can. We ate them on picnic tables, watching tourists walk over from the public restrooms to pose for photos with a giant red dachshund figurine. A man in a red, white and blue tank top leaned against a giant gorilla sculpture to text. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet, but because we were surrounded by asphalt, it was already blazingly hot.
And when we walked around, we saw just how shabby the place was. Patchy asphalt, chipping paint. And of course, that garishly grinning Pedro figurine everywhere – and, especially cringe-worthy, towering in front of the public restrooms. In the numerous gift shops, there were rows of merchandise that all seemed to come from overseas factories, just biding their time until their inevitable final resting place in a landfill: Stacks of straw caps in the “Hats Around the World” shop, rows upon rows of cheap tchotchkes in the shape of jellyfish, shot glasses and tote bags with the acronym “SOB” mined for comedic effect. The stereotyping here expands beyond Mexico, with “Pedro’s Oriental,” which sells fake Polynesian masks and faux Chinoiserie.
The mood turned from bleak to grim during a trip to the 200-foot-high Sombrero Observation Tower. Lit up at night, it’s a beacon to travelers. But during the day, I paid $2 to ride in a dingy, graffitied glass elevator to the top of the lookout perch, where there was farmland to my left and the shimmering asphalt of parking lots to my right, bisected by the cars speeding down I-95. I paid for a bird’s-eye view of a parking lot. What could be more American?
Because that’s what South of the Border is: a bizarre perspective on America and its contradictions. Its carnival brightness draws you in with the promise of fun. But there’s a racist origin story. There’s unabashed consumerism. And there’s the way it all looks shiny from far away, but up close you can see the chips and cracks in the facade.
The cracks are what make it interesting. Of course you want to stop the car.
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If you go
South of the Border
3346 U.S. Hwy. 301 N.
Hamer, S.C. 29547
843-774-2411. For reservations at the Motor Inn, call 800-845-6011.
You’ll find a hotel, campgrounds, gas station, several restaurants and some kid-friendly attractions at this vintage, unabashedly tacky rest stop. Rooms range from $49 to $125 per night. A tent campsite is $20, and RV campsites range from $26 to $32 per night. Admission to attractions is charged separately, from $2 for the Sombrero Tower, to $8 for adults ($6 for children) for the Reptile Lagoon. Entrees at the steakhouse range from $20 to $30, and much less at the more informal restaurants and ice cream shops.