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Me, Myself, Maranda

Fat Girl Life & Style Blog

Road Trip RAVE: South of the Border

You know those times where you really don’t care where you go, as long as you get out of the house? Yeah. We needed it.

This post is not sponsored. It’s 100% honest opinion, just so we’re clear.

Overview of South Carolina state map showing location of South of the Border Motor Inn, with inset map closer in detail.
Map overview courtesy of Google Maps.

Last month we had to use up some days off, so my husband and I decided to do a budget-friendly get-away (remember, I’m a cheapskate). It was way beyond time to get out there and see something new.

South Carolina has so much to explore. There are literally hundreds of places on my want-to-visit radar. But for some stir-crazy reason, those roadside attraction billboards were calling my name. Pedro’s promises of peculiarity all along I-95 sealed the deal.

We read reviews. We groaned, we laughed. We booked an overnight stay at South of the Border Motor Inn.

A Blast From The Past

The most important thing to consider about South of the Border is its history. And really, the history is one of its best features. To see eye-to-eye with Pedro, you must be openminded enough to appreciate this landmark built from humble beginnings over 70 years ago. It’s important to understand that much of the place is relatively unchanged since its inception. If you can go in with an appreciation for historical, cheesy Americana, your experience will be much more satisfying – I promise.

Black and white photo, circa 1960's, of automobiles and tourists within the South of the Border roadside attraction, towered by the iconic Pedro archway displaying the establishment's logo.
Photo credit South of the Border blog, 2/5/19.

South of the Border literally started as a beer stand in South Carolina, just a stone’s throw from dry North Carolina counties. The founder, Mr. Alan Schafer – obviously a cunning, capitalistic S.O.B. himself! -moved so much product from this strategic location that he was able to expand his endeavor in short order. Within about a decade, visitors were able to enjoy a drive-in eatery, cocktail lounge, gas station, souvenir shops, and even a small motel. Soon after, Mr. Schafer found another niche to capitalize on: fireworks. Since fireworks were illegal in North Carolina, “south of the border” was the perfect place to offer them. Smart man.

Then along came I-95, and Mr. Schafer struck gold yet again. Literally right next door to the complex came a four-lane divided freeway. Coincidentally, South of the Border is conveniently located smack-dab near the half-way point between New York and Miami by car. “Tourist trap” notoriety followed easily as Americans embraced their big shiny automobiles and interstate travel business boomed.

Recent-day photo taken underneath the Pedro archway, looking up at the South of the Border logo signage and neon lights. The sombrero tower is silhouetted by the sunset in the background.
S.O.T.B. Motor Inn archway (front) and sombrero tower (behind) today.

Mr. Schafer played into the idea of a cliché pueblo style to really drive home his “south of the border” vision. He maximized the Mexican, so to speak. The theme embraced – and, of course, capitalized on – mid-century America’s notion of what it might be like to visit Mexico.

The attraction adopted Pedro, the traditional sombrero-capped Mexican hombre mascot, and plastered his smiling mustached face everywhere.

Logically, Mr. Schafer aimed for a megaplex.

By the mid-1960’s, at what might be considered its ‘heyday’, the Border featured its own barber shop, drug store, variety store, post office, and outdoor amusement park area with a go-kart track to keep the kiddos busy.

And don’t forget the Reptile Lagoon!

Dozens of buildings sprawled the asphalt desert, topped with the world’s largest sombrero towering 200′ tall and beckoning to I-95 passengers in all its neon tube glory.

South of the Border was a full-stop traveler’s oasis of vibrant colors and gaudy branding as far as the eye could see. Home of cheeky billboards, clever quips, colorful character statues, and America’s middle class basking in the tacky neon glow.

I encourage you to check out the history of South of the Border to get the nitty gritty full story.

Timeline: Arrival

So we’re heading into it with a very open mind, right? Great.

We arrived at South of the Border in the early afternoon to give ourselves time to “see” stuff before checking into our room at the Motor Inn. First impression of the property was exactly as expected: clean, dated, ghost town.

Unfortunately, we were greeted to chained-and-padlocked doors to the first two stores we tried to visit (the Myrtle Beach shop and Pura Vida). According to the hours signs, both places were supposed to be open at that time. Hmmm. Not off to a good start.

So we cased the parking lot, feeling very awkward and touristy, and wandered across the street in search of signs of life.

Timeline: Shopping

Thankfully, the next store (Mexico Shop West) totally redeemed things. The farther in we wandered, the more fun we had. My favorite part was the all the color. Every wall and “themed” area is painted in big, bold flat colors of a calavera palette; it was literal candy for my brain.

And, my lord, the imports! Every type of “hecho en Mexico” souvenir you could ask for is probably available here, and probably offered in multiple colors. I recognized Tonalá pottery pieces mixed in with other traditional art styles. Vases, dishes, cookware, planters, figurines… It’s like a pottery studio warehouse in there.

Not to mention the Mexican textiles! Baja ponchos, jackets, serape blankets, woven sombreros and western hats, purses, hobo bags, the list goes on, I’m telling you.

There’s also more modern art – such as the neon-painted garden decor bedazzled with mirror mosaic tiles (yes, I bought one, lol) – as well as authentic handcrafted home accents of all sizes. We fell in love and adopted a recycled-metal (brutalist style?) roadrunner figure that balances on a big stone weight while rocking in the breeze. Also snagged a couple of the adorable mushroom ‘wake-n-bake’ coffee mugs, as seen above, for my besties.

There’s Pedro-branded apparel and touristy treasures a-plenty. Nearly enough coffee mugs to supply the whole state of Jalisco. Lots of inexpensive, simple toys for kids, too; some of which were a quaint dose of nostalgia to my 90’s-child heart.

Now get this: there’s another large and equally-impressive Mexico Shop East right across the street. And while both Mexico Shops offer basically the same “stuff,” you’ll find just as much color and one-of-a-kind variations to the products at West. If you see something you like at one shop, but want it in a different color, be sure to check the sister-shop across the street.

The Mexico Shops at South of the Border are worth a visit, even if it’s just a means of stretching your legs during a long drive down 95. But I warn you: it would be really, really hard to leave this store without buying something.

@me.myself.maranda A little shopping footage from South of the Border Mexico Shop @southofthebordersc #sobpedro #mexican #folkart #tourist #touristtrap ♬ original sound – Maranda

Timeline: Check-In

First appearances mean so much in the hospitality industry, and I think it’s fair to say that South of the Border is doing the best they can with what they have. While thoroughly dated (albeit in a cool, retro way), we found the Motor Inn’s lobby area to be attractive and inviting. We chatted with staff at the front desk while checking in, explained it was our first visit, and felt warmly welcomed.

Rooms at the Motor Inn are set up in a maze of rows and columns. Be prepared to watch for numbered signs. The driveways seem to be used as one-way streets. I can imagine it would be a pain to get turned around in larger vehicles.

Once we found our room, we were impressed with the covered carport that allows you to park literally next to your front door. (If it’s raining, or you have a lot of stuff to unload into your room, these carports are super handy.) As far as I can tell, every single room has its own carport.

With a deep breath and standards set low, we stepped into room 328 – a non-smoking single king. My first impression was how very different it felt from a typical motel room (and not necessarily in a bad way).

The main living / bedroom area is set up in a unique angular shape. Spacious, breathable… if not a little den-like. Our room was fully-tiled, with stucco-style painted walls and interesting exposed ceiling beams. I give points for architectural flair. There’s only one window in the room – located centrally – which looks out into the back patios of other guestrooms.

Immediately, there’s lots of desk / counter space, with rolling computer chair and adequate television. Yes, free Wi-Fi. And the first thing I always do is get the air conditioning running. At South of the Border, the room’s air is controlled by an actual thermostat on the wall and piped in via ductwork. It worked well and quickly.

The bed, mattress, and bedding was obviously dated, as expected, but looked and smelled clean. I inspected the sheets: no problems noted. Bedframe was a little shaky, a little janky, but do-able. (And as we found out overnight, the mattress was quite firm, but with some lopsided spots, as well as chunky springs poking your ribs.)

Bathroom was decent. Aside from some rust on the faucet areas, everything was relatively modern, in good shape, and very, very clean. Except for the stained rubber bath mat, which looked straight out of the ’60’s – ick! Good water pressure, though.

Between the main room and the bathroom, there’s a little hallway of sorts that offers a second sink, mirror, and vanity area, as well as a shelf with mini-fridge, and separate open closet space with clothes rack and hangers. The “back” door of the room opens off this hallway. It grants access to your own little patio (as long as you don’t mind hanging out with your neighbors), as well as a walkable short-cut to the indoor pool, commons area, soda machines, etc.

Timeline: Evening

Red horse statue painted with South of the Border logo and large cacti sculptures along the side of the road.

After settling into our room and soaking up some air conditioning, we ventured back into Border town.

First, on the west side of the street, we did a little more shopping and visited the Reptile Lagoon. Then we went to the arcade at the base of the giant sombrero tower. There are enough games to keep kids busy for while, along with the standard ticket redemption prize booth. While we typically enjoy a good arcade, this one is relatively small and best suited for kiddos, so we skipped it. We did, however, attempt to ride the sombrero’s glass elevator to the observation deck at 200’… but they said it was closed until tomorrow. Bummer.

We had a hard time deciding between restaurants for dinner – S.O.B. offers a few dining options. Honestly, I was a little disappointed by the menu for The Peddler Steak House (no pasta or big salad choices), so we settled on trying The Sombrero Room instead, followed by ice cream for dessert at Pedro’s Ice Cream Fiesta.

The Sombrero Room was bright, clean, and updated. With plenty of long tables for bigger groups, I expect this restaurant to be the best choice for families with kids. Pretty standard American diner fare through the menu, but plenty of options.

I was surprised to see a well-stocked, fresh salad bar and soup station. There were very few customers, sadly. Our waitress was super pleasant; the food (bacon double cheeseburgers with fries) was good. It was a deliciously gooey, greasy burger, and the fries were hot and crispy. Hubby was happily surprised to find Amstel beer on the bar menu.

After dinner, we sauntered next door (literally, within the same building) to Pedro’s Ice Cream Fiesta. I’m a sucker for old-fashioned hand-dipped scoops. It’s childhood nostalgia to me. The Fiesta bar has a modest offering of flavors, as well as the usual sundaes and specialties. It was a refreshing cold treat to enjoy outside, sitting on a bench, watching the sun go down behind the sombrero tower.

Timeline: Sunset

After dinner, we were on a mission to get some nice “golden hour” shots around the property – specifically, from the walkway arch that spans above four traffic lanes. (Though there’s little to no traffic on this roadway these days.)

It feels a little sketch, but the bridge has a lot of character. The usual etched or Sharpie’d names and vulgarities. One message in particular was touching (see photo below). Folks have also started a “love lock” wall. Then some genius came along without a lock, but he did have a sock… So there’s also a growing “love sock” collection.

Drawn to nighttime photography? This place is great. With extremely low traffic and plenty of neon ablaze, even after-dark at South of the Border is a feast for the eyes.

Older model security patrol car parked at South of the Border's Mexico Shop.
This old S.O.B. was a giggle.

Walking through the dim ghost town parking lots at night felt eerie, but not un-safe.

We noted regular security patrols (on foot, on golf cart, and by security vehicle). I must confess, however, that we got a chuckle out of this wannabe-cop-car, but I promise it was mostly in empathy; I myself drove an old-ass floater boat for the longest time.

After sundown, you’ll see the occasional passers-by dropping in off I-95 for gas or a late bite to eat, but otherwise Border town seems humbly quiet all night long.

Expectations Versus Reality

Overall Expectation: Authentically outdated mid-century styling. Rusty retro fixtures. Naturally-aged infrastructure. Like, a total blast from the past, man.

Overall Reality: Authentically outdated mid-century styling mixed with modern touches. Updated (i.e. within the last decade) technology. Some areas show their age, while other areas are freshly remodeled.

Staff Expectation: Understaffed, bored teenagers and management that does just enough to get by on the fringes.

Staff Reality: Possibly understaffed, but every staff member we met seemed pleasant. We chatted with a few. Staff felt more like a “family” and it seems they do still take pride in the whole establishment.

Bed Expectation: Old, possibly gross. (We took our own bedding in case we needed to lay it on top of what was offered.)

Bed Reality: Old, but clean. Could definitely use new mattresses. Bed was firm, but to the point where you could feel the individual spring coils which was a little hard on my ribs.

Value Expectation: Hoping we’d at least “get what you pay for.”

Value Reality: Yeah, you get what you pay for as long as you meander around the complex and spend some time enjoying the roadside attraction for what it is, as well as for what it was. Plan to spend a bit extra on enjoyments like ice cream and gift shop goodies. It’s worth the trip for a quick get-away if you’re weirdos like us.

Roadside Attraction

I-95 still hosts an impressive collection of fading, weathered billboards calling for your attention every few dozen miles. Nowadays, we’d call their cheesiness “dad jokes.” It’s a wonder how this roadside relic still manages such a marketing budget, honestly. But now that we’ve been to South of the Border, every time we pass an S.O.B. billboard, my husband and I glance at each other and grin. (Thanks for that, Pedro!)

How does one classify South of the Border? Well, it’s a novelty. It’s always been a little tongue-in-cheeky, and that’s part of its charm. Back in the day, it had great tourist appeal as a roadside attraction turned destination vacation spot. These days, it seems to glide gently downstream, somehow staying afloat against the travel industry’s ever-changing demands from an ever-updating society. At its bare minimum, South of the Border is a ghost town with a gas station.

And while Pedro may be mocked and criticized for the areas in which he lags behind the times, he hasn’t stopped smiling at his visitors yet.