Welcome sign at SOB.


Is South of the Border, the tourist trap on I-95 just south of the North Carolina border, teetering on its taco-stuffed legs? Reports that we'd received from the road about SOB suggested as much, or at least hinted that the place was less a neon-flavored cartoon and more a scary Mexican barrio. Abandoned buildings, dirty bathrooms, carjackings??? We decided to stop by and see what was happening for ourselves.

Part of SOB's image problem may be that, to some people, it will never match the fever-pitch expectations sown by its I-95 billboard barrage. The pedro-speak messages are long gone, replaced by broad jokes such as "Roads' Scholar" and fuzzy aphorisms such as "Talk of the Town!" But their sheer, relentless numbers are enough to get most folks excited, and some may expect Six Flags and instead get SOB.

The Peddler - Sobrero shaped restaurant.

The other thing probably working against SOB's Mexican-theme world concept is America's own shifting demographics. In contrast to the mid-20th century -- when S.O.B. opened -- it seems that Mexican restaurants stand on at least one street corner in every town. And while we now know that Mexicans probably don't live in buildings shaped like sombreros or even wear them, the Bizarro-World appeal of SOB has suffered. Perhaps it's on the same novelty depletion trajectory as all-year Christmas attractions.

Pedro's Concrete Bazaar.

There is some bad news off I-95, if we go down our health checklist: The giant skyrocket is gone from the Fort Pedro fireworks store sign. Employees are no longer known, universally, as "pedro." The "Big Chief Porky" Muffler Man is apparently gone, or maybe we just missed it among all the giant statues and garish signs, which actually says something good about the amount of photo-op eye-candy that's here. The elevator to the top of the Sombrero Tower, now three decades old, is often closed for repairs (especially during the off-season) and it's closed, period, whenever it's windy.

Certain parts of the small city that is SOB may not be open at night and others may not be open during the day, such as the Mexican hat steakhouse and the "Club Cancun." Large swaths of the complex may not be open during the week in the off-season. But you'll always find a place to eat, shop, and buy fireworks here, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's what a glorious excess of 17 gift shops and restaurants will get you.

SOB Motor Inn.

Remember: SOB is a Tourist Trap. It will never meet the Never-Never Land standards of antiseptic hygiene found in a place like Walt Disney World. But it seemed clean and well-maintained to us, which is no small feat for a complex that sprawls over 135 acres.

As for the carjacking, general manager Gerald Moody told us that there was one incident he recalled a couple of years back, when a man "who was a little crazy" stopped to use the restrooms and met some teenagers who told him that there was a party in North Carolina. Would he like to go? He piled them into his van, and they robbed and carjacked him. "Millions of people come through here every year," Moody told us. "You're going to have some problems" (Moody evidently forgot another carjacking and kidnapping that occurred outside the Motor Inn in April 2005). We encountered SOB's security force several times during our visit, even on a sleepy off-season day, and felt quite safe (We can't really speak for late at night, after a prison break, or during a sudden collapse of civilization).

We could be accused of viewing SOB through salsa-colored glasses -- we will always love the place -- but the place seemed fine to us. Just be on your guard, and always be careful wherever you travel (Sez Senor Safety...). Now, if the maintenance crew would just get that Sombrero Tower elevator working again.

I-95 - US 301/501, Dillon, SC
I-95 exit 1 in North Carolina. Follow the billboards.
Always open. (Call to verify)
Sombrero Tower: $2.
RA Rates:
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