Hello Beautiful Readers!
Today I bring you a DIFFERENT type of post. The purpose of my blog is to energize lives and empower readers to seek their own answers, access their true dreams, and overcome anything that gets in the way of making those dreams a reality. Well, if part of your dream is a gorgeous smile through state of the art dental work, the high cost of that dental work might be what’s standing in your way.
Enter Los Algodones, Mexico.
I’ve known about medical tourism for years. The first time I heard about dental tourism was from my massage therapist who went to Los Algodones and had a GREAT experience while saving thousands of dollars last year. I asked him all kinds of questions and he had nothing but praise for his dentists and the entire experience. After several months research, and coordinating air travel, drive time, and arrangements for a CT scan and two separate consultations at different offices, my friend and I headed to Mexico on a simple fact finding mission to see if traveling to Los Algodones could save him some money too.
Our trip fell on November 13 & 14. Coincidentally, on the 14th, this article appeared in the Huffington Post about the Dental Mecca that America’s health care costs built. The subtitle reads, “A tiny border town is home to hundreds of dentists and is a major destination for Americans seeking big savings on dental care.”
I am impressed!
From Oakland we flew to San Diego and got a rental car. Los Algodones is a very easy 2.5 hour drive east on Interstate 8.
We parked in the giant parking lot and made our way through the unmanned turnstile that let us into Mexico. No passport stamp, no guards, no border wall to cross, just a turnstile letting hundreds and thousands of Americans escape the high cost of dental care.
Walking into Los Algodones is akin to walking into Disneyland, but instead of souvenir shops lining Main Street, it’s dentists, opticians and pharmacies. Oh my!
Los Algodones is brightly colored with purple, yellow and green buildings. Color makes me happy and I was enchanted the moment we entered.
If we didn’t have an appointment to make our way toward, it would have been easy to get lost in the sights of Los Algodones, or diverted by the incessant barkers luring pedestrians with promises of low prices and high skill to whichever dentist or pharmacy they were hawking. All of them promise the lowest prices. All of them are quite insistent, and most of them are very convincing as I expect they are paid only if they draw in clientele.
You can walk into Los Algodones without an appointment and get one quite easily, but I have NO idea how you would choose a dentist once you arrive and I was delighted those decisions didn’t need to be made on the spot. We found our first appointment easily and arrived slightly ahead of schedule despite the near impossibility of walking down the street.
It was 87 degrees on the November day we visited Los Algodones, and to walk in the shade, you must pass through the territories of the souvenir traders who are fiercely competing for the attention of the passerby. I say territories because they are not indoor shops. They have racks for clothes right on the walkways in front of and between the medical offices, and hang tarps to minimize the sun. The makeshift shops are full of striking colors and the smell of leather and sweat. T-shirts, hats, belts, dresses, jackets, statuary, jewelry, blankets, pipes and purses all get loaded into a van at the end of the day and carted away. The streets of Molar City pretty much roll up at 5 pm when the dental offices close.
Cinthia greeted us at the reception desk of Reny Dental, and across the course of the next two hours I discovered that Cinthia is highly knowledgeable about dentistry, understands complex surgical practices, and converses flawlessly in her second language of English. The first thing she did was ask a lanky young man in the waiting room to “take us down,” referring to where we needed to go for my friend’s CT scan.
Frankie stood without looking at us, opened the door, and motioned us through without ever looking up from the screen in his palm. We followed lanky Frankie about a block and a half, and into Baja Medical Imaging where he spoke a few words of Spanish to the man at the desk. We sat for two minutes, they called my friend in. He returned two minutes later. Five minutes after that and about five more words of Spanish between the two men as the imaging guy handed Frankie a CT image on a CD, and we were back on the busy street following Frankie back to the dental office.
SIDE NOTE – In 2015 I had a CT scan at Kaiser. My portion with medical insurance cost $2,300. The one in Los Algodones cost $80.
Cinthia translated for the doctor and my friend. He had a very thorough exam and got a detailed plan for each tooth! They talked about options, explained how long the procedures would take and time needed for healing. They work with tourists all the time, so they were able to let us know how many days he would have to be in the area for each step of the process. They explained the types of materials he could choose, and called an oral surgeon to consult on the case.
My friend has been dealing with his dental issues for years now and was satisfied that the consult hit all of the markers he was looking for. There was zero charge for the time they spent with us. The office was clean. The staff was professional & friendly. The exam was thorough. The doctor did not speak English well, but communication was clear and concise. Cinthia is a consummate professional and a great asset to her office. We left with an estimate for his full mouth that was less than they want for his bottom teeth in California.
Getting back into the U.S. took a little over 5 minutes, though the guy who checked my passport looked at me sideways when I reported I had purchased nothing. “What was the purpose of your visit?” he asked rather suspiciously. Dentistry. He handed back my passport and waved me through. We walked back to the parking lot and made the super easy 15 minute drive across the Arizona line into Yuma. I highly recommend La Fuente Inn & Suites if you plan to be in the Yuma area!
Day Two in Mexico – Second Dentist and some Shopping
In the morning we had a 9am appointment at a second dental office for consultation. It was fun and a little confusing to leave Yuma at 9:30 and arrive in Mexico before 9am, but since they are in neighboring time zones, that’s just what happened. As you cross the Arizona line into California, an orderly row of billboards springs up and marches off to the horizon alerting you to the fact that if you need dental, optical, or pharmacy, Los Algodones awaits!
Arriving at the Los Algodones border crossing at 9am is similar to arriving for BART during the morning rush, but the waves of people moving through the turnstile mostly have gray hair. Dental office workers in scrubs arrive alongside flocks of snowbirds and tourists coming in for dental appointments and affordable prescription drugs.
As impressed as my friend and I were with the first office, we were doubly impressed with with the Marquez brothers at Grace Dental Studio & Co. Dr. Diego Marquez is a restorative dentist with a meticulous approach to aesthetics. His brother Dr. Nestor is an oral surgeon and implant dentist.
We found Grace Dental every bit as clean, professional, thorough and friendly as the first one we visited. Dr. Diego spent nearly an hour with us examining my friend’s teeth and discussing his case history. Dr. Nestor wanted some extra time to examine the CT scan we brought with us, so they recommended a place to get some food and asked us to return in an hour.
The few blocks we walked to find Birrieria El Paisa – not to be confused with Mariscos el Paisa, of course – were plastered with colorful offerings, leather goods, dental signs, and loud merchants barking prices at pedestrians. It was somewhat like a carnival atmosphere and I was indeed entertained.
We are huge fans and expert judges in the all manner of street tacos, so after being told they were out of pork, we each ordered one chicken and one beef taco. They were quite tasty and kept hunger at bay until we had reached San Diego again. Service was quick, so we still had time to kill before heading back. My friend needed a new belt, so we decided to procure a few local goods to declare at the passport check that afternoon.
If you enjoy bargaining, you will love shopping in Mexico. I don’t necessarily enjoy bargaining, but I am good at it because I decide in my head how much I am willing to pay before I ask for their price. Then when they give me the first number (and don’t ever pay the first number, unless you are just feeling generous and want to give a little bit back to the people of Los Algodones, because they expect you to haggle over the price) I offer them less than I am willing to pay.
I’m also willing to walk away which almost instantly triggers a price drop as they fear losing the sale to the next seller with the same merchandise. I usually get a pretty good deal when I actually want to make the purchase. We enjoyed the noisy, colorful “shops” and our interactions with the friendly people. Even the dental barkers, once they determined that you were in fact looking for something other than dental services were happy to help translate or give directions.
Once back at Grace dental, Dr. Nestor spent over 30 minutes with us explaining everything he saw in the CT scan, his thoughts on treatment options, pros and cons of those options, best and worst case scenarios, and information about follow-up treatment required to guarantee their work. My friend was more impressed with this consult than the first. He was especially keen that the oral surgeon is on site and that he got to discuss the case with him personally. We did not get the estimate while we were there, but were told they would email it in a day or two. Even without seeing the numbers, my friend is leaning toward having his work done at Grace Dental Studio & Co.
Getting back across the border took slightly longer the second day. As we approached the crossing, I saw a line of people waiting to get back into the U.S. We joined the queue and struck up a conversation with the nice people in front of us. They are from Yuma and come across to Los Algodones once a week to eat lunch.
The line of tourists was a rich target for the locals to hawk their wares one more time before we took our money back into the U.S. A man carrying a large brightly painted statue of a turtle walked the line trying to draw attention for a sale. There was a woman holding an arm of brightly colored carpet bags on her arm asking quietly for $20 each. Two small girls stood alongside with silk flowers, pushing them toward passerby, hoping to garner a sale to help their mother. I didn’t need any silk flowers. I didn’t need a carpet bag either, but there was one that caught my eye with it’s vivid colors and I could not resist one more purchase on my way out of Mexico!
When the passport agent asked me what I was bringing today, I delightedly reported two T-shirts, one dress, a jacket, one leather belt, and one carpet bag. The look on his face lead me to believe that he didn’t want quite that much detail. You just can’t please these guys.
Our return drive to San Diego was fast and easy. We got the best Mexican food of the trip at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. We were lucky enough to arrive at happy hour and got some of the BEST fried fish tacos we have ever eaten for $1 each! This is an amazing restaurant about a block from Pacific Beach that even offers beach delivery!
We walked down to the water to enjoy an iconic San Diego sunset before gassing up the rental car at Costco, and catching our 90 minute flight back to the Oakland airport. BTW – the most difficult part of the entire travel process was winding our way back to the rental car return from Costco on the streets of San Diego.
So if you need dental work but have been putting it off due to the prohibitive cost, I highly recommend that you do some research on your own and consider the more affordable option on our southern doorstep, Los Algodones, Mexico – Molar City.