Following a bombardment of campy billboards, a giant sombrero looms above the horizon. Nope, that’s not heatwaves coming off the asphalt of I-95 – it’s South of the Border. If the near-incessant advertisements haven’t already worked their way into your subconscious, then veer off the interstate and prepare to be amazed … or disappointed. Either way, this theme park stands as one of the most recognizable landmarks along the I-95’s interminable monotony.
The 135-acre entertainment complex is located in the Dillon County town of Hamer, a stone’s throw below the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. In 1949 businessman Alan Schafer had the idea of opening a beer stand just below the North Carolina border, giving the business its name. What sounds like a small-time operation actually was quite strategic: many of the counties over the North Carolina line did not allow in alcohol sales, making Schafer’s business a convenient location for residents from both states to grab a beer.
With business flooding the beer stand, Schafer expanded. Soon the humble beer joint became a destination for motorists looking to stretch their legs and add a little whimsy to roadtrips. The “Mexican” theme is said to have originated when Schafer went on a business trip to Mexico. According to the tale, while there he hired two Mexican men to come and work for the South of the Border Motel, which Schafer added in 1954.
Motel guests frequently referred to the men as “Pedro,” a common name in Mexico. From that point, the park had a mascot, Pedro, whose caricature image adorns billboards from Virginia to Georgia, hoping to lure travelers to its carnival rides, reptile lagoon, and a view from the 200-foot-tall sombrero tower.
The business has been accused of racism and insensitivity towards Latinos due to its depictions of Pedro, and many have called for boycotts of the park. Yet the park’s prime location on I-95 still attracts people, either out of curiosity or the need to stop and refuel after a long drive. The park has seen few updates in its 65 years of operation, leaving people to wonder if its 1950s appearance is the result of intentional nostalgia or managerial oversight.
Regardless, South of the Border is a business that has survived the times. It has received much attention as a roadside attraction and was featured on the Travel Channel and in Time Magazine, which named it one of America’s Top 50 Roadside Attractions in 2010.
Today, South of the Border seems a little past its prime, which may add to its quirky draw. The gift shops are still there, replete with a bevy of unique junk, and the amusement rides mostly work – when they’re open. A ride up the 200-foot sombrero tower costs only a dollar and provides a unique panorama of South Carolina’s favorite tourist trap.