Drive up or down I-95 and after miles and miles of billboards promoting the place, just south of the North Carolina/South Carolina state line, you’ll find South of The Border (SOTB), a tourist attraction in Dillon SC, whose name is a tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to its Mexican theming. A well worn tourist attraction since its humble beginnings as a beer stand 1949 (the just-north-of-the-border NC counties were “dry” at the time), SOTB runs on both sides of highway 501 and contains, among other things, a truck stop, a 300-room motel, several souvenir shops that sell everything from T-shirts to hats to fireworks to leather goods to beachwear and everything in between, a handful of restaurants, a 200-foot tall observation tower shaped like a sombrero, and the largest reptile exhibit in the country. Oh, and don’t forget the dozens of statues of animals such as dinosaurs, gorillas, dolphins, flamingos, etc., painted in whatever garishly beautiful color was the cheapest paint at the store that day.
For most people, SOTB is just a rest stop. For me, it was a vacation destination. See, I had
wanted to explore South of The Border before I even knew what it was. When I was a little kid, my neighbor’s car had a SOTB bumper sticker. I was old enough to read and knew it was in SC and it had pretty colors – when you’re 7, what else do you need to know? Unfortunately, except for 2 brief (less than 30 minutes) visits in 2000 and 2004 (I believe they were both for pee and gasoline breaks), I had never been able to stop there and really explore this glorious 350-acre compound/tourist oasis. Finally, thanks to being invited to a friend’s wedding in NC, Joe and I figured out a route that would allow me to visit the land of SOTB’s mascot, Pedro. And Joe promised I could stay for as long as I wanted. I took him at his word, because between Thursday night to get some evening pictures and then Friday, we were there for a good 6 hours.
Yes, 6. Really! 6!
Our plane landed in Charlotte early that afternoon and we drove on Route 74 east to get to my Mecca known as SOTB. We just did a quick drive-by to start (I was practically drooling as I saw the huge sombrero from the highway…), so we could stop at our hotel for the evening (the Comfort Inn, in Dillon), drop our stuff off and eat dinner at Del Sol Mexican Restaurant (which wasn’t bad at all!). By the time we were done, it was sunset, so we could get some evening and nighttime shots. It was so beautiful! Practically brought a tear to the eye…
After 2 hours of driving within the confines of SOTB, stopping, taking a picture or 18, driving some more, stopping again, taking 14 more shots, rinsing and repeating over and over and over again, with a stop inside only 1 store (it was sort of like opening 1 Christmas present on Christmas Eve) I was “good” for the moment. I bid Pedro goodnight for the evening and we went back to our hotel for the night.
We slept in the next morning and when we were ready to head out the door, discovered, much to our char grin, that there are no Starbucks within 20 miles of Dillon, SC. Tragic. Ergo, we also discovered that McDonald’s coffee, which neither of us had had in a good decade or more, had become REALLY good. And Egg McMuffins and hash browns are still REALLY yummy and probably still not the least bit good for you, but for once a decade, it’s probably OK. 😉
With our bellies full, we drove back to South of the Border! This time I went into every single store and took as many photos as my heart desired. I was in SOTB heaven!
I had a blast going through all the shops and seeing all the
crap treasures they had to sell. I was particularly impressed that they sold so-called “adult” items (mainly stuff with pot leaves on it, and a salt/pepper shaker set of 2 pigs makin’ some bacon), albeit with a notice to those who might not approve of such things – essentially, “we have lots of other stores that don’t sell these – go to one of those stores.” 🙂
Now, from its early beginnings, SOTB has been accused of being racist. From The Washington Post:
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.”
If not outright racist (although brown-face.com insists they are [it’s amazing the stuff you find when you’re researching for a post like this]), SOTB is, at the very least, is an equal opportunity culturally insensitive place. Besides all the Pedro & Mexican references, we also found these…Pedro’s ORIENTAL section (Oriental? Really?) and Pedro’s Africa section – where they remind people that millions of African Americans are here because their ancestors were brought here to be slaves…so we’ll sell stuff mostly made by hand by Africans. What the…?
And then there was this – the (fake) shark in front of the “falls” fountain that wasn’t working. But apparently it used to work. And when it, did, the money went to charity. But what a charity! When was the last time people used THAT word? As the pictures shows, Joe was, to say the least, shocked (BTW, after some more research, it appears there used to be a “Shriners Crippled Children’s Fund at Omar Temple” in Charleston SC, but they changed their name years ago. Pity the sign didn’t change accordingly.).
So after walking around a whole lot and getting pretty much every photo opportunity possible (including some of my better photobombs), we stopped for some ice cream, which was pretty yummy (I highly recommend the banana pudding flavor). And then…and THEN…we went up to the top of the big sombrero.
Now, this was no small feat – a friend of mine who had been to SOTB many times in her travels said she had NEVER found the sombrero to be open. So the fact that it was open on the one day we were there was a HUGE deal, as far as I was concerned! To celebrate this momentous occasion, I videotaped it the entire adventure…(go ahead and click – it’s a very short adventure; maybe 3 or 3-1/2 minutes).
And then, sadly, our adventure was done. I had seen everything there was to see that I wanted to see, and we had plans to meet some friends in Raleigh for dinner that night before driving to our friend’s wedding in Charlotte in the morning, so I tearfully bid adieu to Pedro and all that campy, touristy goodness that was South of the Border. It was a wonderful 6-hour vacation that I’ll never forget.
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