The Country’s Biggest Tourist Trap: South of the Border

There is a tourist trap in South Carolina called South of the Border. A combination truck stop, motel, roadside attraction, carnival and snack stand, it’s high kitsch of the first order, bordering on exploitative with its stereotypically Mexican “mascot” Pedro. A couple days before the Fourth of July, when I drove through, it’s also a bonanza for fireworks, all manner of which are legal in South Carolina, even if they’re sold at exit one, just south of the border with North Carolina.

Traveling the American Road – Exploring South of the Border

It started as a half-way point on the haul down to Florida, a convenient place for New York- and Boston-area families to spend the night while driving to Walt Disney World and Miami. But faster speed limits, not to mention cheaper flights, a growing number of chain hotel outposts and the economic downturn, have left South of the Border as more of a curiosity than a much-needed overnight waypoint. It’s hokiness is no longer a draw but rather something to be snickered at after you get back in your car and continue down I-95.

One saving grace is Fort Pedro, an explosives depot masquerading as a fireworks stand. A $699 collection of bombs, mortars and various other sparklers was the most expensive package I saw; simple firecrackers seemed unavailable in any quantity shy of 1,000. Packages as bright as the magnesium blooms they promised went on, row after row, as giddy shoppers stacked their carts. One group had assembled an arsenal so formidable it seemed destined for either resale in a control state or the ultimate end to the chunk of South Carolina in which they’d be ignited.

My friend Rob, who was along for this part of the ride, suggested we buy dozens of sparklers to hand out during the Fourth, the better to make friends with. Our best find were yard-long behemoths, in a pack of eight, for about a buck a pop. We declined to purchase super-light hot air balloon-inspired lamps, like you see in Southeast Asia, for fear that we’d spark yet another Lowcountry brush fire. I did buy a South of the Border bumper sticker for a dime.

The rest of the attractions were by turns unappealing or disappointing. The reptile house didn’t seem worth an outlay of $8. The hat shop had precious few hilarious headpieces. The most that can be said of the ice cream stand is that it serves ice cream.

Visitors can ride to the top of the famed South of the Border sign, taking in the view from the “sombrero.” But the open road was waiting. We didn’t feel the need to hang around any longer: we had real stops to make.