Sometimes the best reason for a road trip also is the simplest one: Because it’s there. This philosophy is what led me and a friend to South of the Border, a destination that fundamentally changed the way I evaluate roadside attractions.
The place is also why I’ll never look at sombreros the same way again.
The trip happened a while ago—let’s say “many years” and leave it at that. A high school buddy and I were living in New York City at the time, and we were feeling bored with life. We knew we wanted to go somewhere, but we weren’t sure where. Atlantic City? Too close. Washington, D.C.? Too touristy. Miami? Too far.
That’s when my buddy remembered seeing some silly billboards along I-95 on a drive back from Atlanta one year. “All of the billboards advertised some truck stop,” he said. My response: “Let’s go.”
This was pre-kids for me, a time when life was infinitely simpler. Today, “let’s go” means hours of Internet research and crowdsourcing on Facebook and Twitter, then a call to my network of nannies to see who can handle childcare. Back then, “let’s go” meant something much different. About 30 minutes after I said it, we were in my minivan (yes, I drove a minivan even then) with no plan beyond following those ridiculous billboards until we found what they were advertising.
We saw the first billboard south of D.C. and I forget what that one said, but I remember it comprised of some silly pun and wacky design. Instantly, I was obsessed.
Other billboards followed. My favorite was the one that depicted a giant sausage and read: YOU NEVER SAUSAGE A PLACE! All of these billboards featured a tiny mustachioed man wearing a serape and a giant sombrero. His name was Pedro. And according to the collective marketing message, he was the de facto mascot of South of the Border. I was excited to meet him.
The billboards increased in frequency as we got closer to the North Carolina/South Carolina border. From these ads, we were able to glean a number of truths: South of the Border was a big place, it had a Mexican theme, and there was a motel at which we could crash for the night.
About 13 hours after we had left New York City, just south of the North Carolina/South Carolina border (get the name now?), we found it. South of the Border. In all its glory.
Viewfinder Tip: Arrive hungry at South of the Border, the on-site Mexican restaurants serve authentic food that’s worth eating.
To be honest, that “glory” was totally chintzy, but in the best way. Exhibit A: We walked through at least a dozen gift shops, and all of them carried the same cheap plastic souvenirs. Exhibit B: We marveled at coin-operated “rides,” but most looked like they hadn’t been refreshed since the 1960s. Exhibit C: We scratched our heads over a number of giant sculptures of random creatures, including King Kong and Pedro.
There even was a four- or five-story observation tower with a sombrero on top (natch).
This was just the weird stuff; other things about SOTB were totally normal and—dare I say it—downright fun. Such as the on-site restaurants that served Mexican food so authentic that tasted like it was teleported from a kitchen in Mexico City, and the hotel, which amounted to a super-nice Motel 6 with a Mexican theme.
My buddy and I also stumbled into a boutique that stood out from the rest because it offered legitimately nice stuff. He gravitated toward the silver belt buckles and marble bolo ties. I set my sights on the sombreros—beautiful hats with vibrant colors, sequins, and lots of panache.
Sure, I could have tried on one or two sombreros and called it quits. But over the course of three hours, I couldn’t resist the urge to try on about 40 of the hats, preening, and prancing every time.
Aside from these souvenirs (I bought three), the most memorable component of my visit to South of the Border was Pedro himself. This diminutive man is to South of the Border what Mickey Mouse is to Disneyland. He’s everywhere. At first his prevalence was a little creepy. After a few hours, though, his hairy face became a great comfort, an inspiration. Pedro’s at the arcade—let’s play Pac-Man! Pedro’s likeness is on this ashtray; I don’t even smoke but let’s get it! The hotel has Pedro stationary; we MUST write a letter.
Pedro and his ‘stache still were on my mind the following morning, when my friend and I left South of the Border and headed home. I have seen his face every time I’ve thought about the place since. To me, Pedro represents marketing genius: the embodiment of everything South of the Border is about. To know him is to love him. Just like the attraction itself. Seriously. You never sausage a place.
What’s the wackiest roadside attraction you’ve ever visited and why?