Driving literally from sea to shining sea – i.,e, from Charleston, SC to Los Angeles – we decided to make a pit stop in Mexico. But we didn’t go to Mazatlan or Tijuana or Cancun. We weren’t going to visit Aztec ruins or drink tequila or lounge on the beach. Our destination was the little town of Los Algodones, near Yuma, Arizona. And our mission was a much more vital one than sightseeing: to get our teeth fixed.
Los Algodones (meaning “the cotton plants”) has been nicknamed Molar City. And that moniker wasn’t just pulled out of a sombrero. Although it has a population of only about 6000, the local economy is driven by the dentist’s drill – the town boasts at least 350 dentists, as well as optometrists, pharmacies and other medical specialties. And virtually all of the clientele consists of tourists from the U.S. (and elsewhere) who slip over the border to escape the tyranny of dictatorial dental prices at home.
In Mexico, dental rates typically are about 40 percent of what you’d pay in the States. And the work is usually completed in much less time if you require more than one visit. Instead of waiting two weeks for a crown, you can make your tooth happy in 3 or 4 days.
We started looking into dental tourism several months ago when it became apparent that we were going to need some oral repairs with a hefty price tag that our insurance wouldn’t cover. Kimberly needed at least one new crown. Dennis had been told by his California dentist that he needed at least 3 crowns and a possible root canal. And after that, another crown came completely out. Our insurance would cover the root canal, but not the crowns. So let’s see, we were looking at 5 crowns with a total expenditure of around $4500.
Thus terrified, we began researching and comparing dental costs worldwide. We found, as we’d often heard, that Mexico does indeed have rates far lower than the U.S. (one reason, apparently, is that the Mexican government subsidizes the education of medical students, so they’re not saddled with massive debt right out of the starting gate – Americans likely would condemn such an arrangement as “socialism”, through their rotting teeth). But in fact, there were other countries that had rates even lower. Indeed, almost anywhere in the world has lower dental rates than the U.S. of A.
So we began filling out a spread sheet comparing rates and other costs of having the work done in various countries. The lowest dental prices we found were in Turkey – but that was in part because we had a contact in Istanbul who obtained quotes directly from her own dentist. We also knew someone in Vietnam. But for nearly all of the other countries, we had to rely on websites operated by services that get a cut, so while the dentists were probably top-notch, the prices cited were almost certainly not the best deals available. Still, they were quite a bargain to our ears and mouths.
The dentist in Istanbul – which is, mind you, the fifteenth-largest metropolitan area in the world – charges about 75 to 100 dollars for a root canal or crown. In the U.S., each of these would set you back at least 800. We were very close to hopping on an airplane for Istanbul, which we’d love to visit anyway. But when we began tallying up costs for transportation, food and lodging, we found that we would not save anything over paying out of pocket in California. Even so, it was very tempting. On the one hand, you could shell out five grand to get your teeth repaired and stay at home. On the other hand, you could pay the same amount for the same results and get a fabulous trip thrown in to boot.
Still, given that it was a bad time for us to take such a journey (financially and otherwise), we ultimately decided instead to turn our gaze toward our Southern Neighbor. And to make matters as economical and convenient as possible, we settled on the easily accessible Molar City, which is just a few miles from Interstate 8.
To our relief, it was easier to look up and vet dental practitioners in Mexico than in most other countries. There are even independent websites that offer customer reviews of various dentists. So we were able to avoid the organized referral services (some of which even provide bus excursions into Mexico for dental patients, leaving from as far away as New Mexico) and be our own agents. As we combed through the reviews, we made notes of dentists that were mentioned more than once, and compared their ratings and looked for any negative comments. There was one name in particular that really stood out: Dr. Eva Urena, who’d had her practice for some 20 years, and was accredited by the dental associations of both Mexico and the U.S. And we couldn’t find anyone who had anything bad to say about her.
Her website lists a number with a California area code for prospective patients to call. We dialed up and talked to a gentlemen who spoke perfect English, and made our appointments for January 20 (which we later changed to January 27 to allow us more time to drive across the country). And when we told him about the possible root canal, he said that just in case, he would make an appointment for the same day at an endodontist to whom they make such referrals. He quoted the fees up front, and said we could pay either by cash or check, but not by credit card. And he reminded us that although Los Algodones is on Pacific Time, the dentists, like all other businesses in town, operate on Arizona Time, since nearly all clients come in from Yuma. That must cause a bit of confusion among the town’s residents.
The border crossing is in a little stretch of desert about 5 miles outside of Yuma. About the only thing around is a casino (and a rather nice one) operated by the Quechan tribe, which owns the land thereabouts. The tribe maintains a parking lot next to the border with a parking rate of 6 dollars (higher, of course, for gargantuan rides like our RV and trailer). Once upon a time, there was even a campground next to the parking lot, but it’s now defunct. RV owners also can park in a lot at the casino, or on the surrounding reservation land, and spend the night for 10 dollars. This is what we opted for, and then we walked to the border, a distance of about a mile and a half.
As we approached, we saw border patrol agents parked in their pickups on little hills, intently scouring the landscape for anyone trying to smuggle unauthorized guacamole recipes. And the most Kafkaesque thing of all (we love the word Kafkaesque and have plenty of opportunity to use it these days) was a Mexican man outside the gate selling gifts to American tourists, among which were MAGA hats – which are made in China.
The crossing into Mexico was quick and easy, and there was no wait involved. We just walked through the revolving gate and presto, we were in a foreign country that had a very different vibe from what we’d just left. For one thing, we immediately encountered a gauntlet of hawkers asking us if we needed a dentist. We told them we already had one, and they asked if we needed help with directions. (It’s likely that they expected tips for such guidance, in addition to the kickbacks they received from the dentists.) But you’d be foolish if you went into Molar City for dental work without having a dentist selected and researched well in advance; as in the U.S. or any other country, most dentists are reputable, but there are also some to be avoided.
By the way, even though the folks waiting to greet us were trying to sell us their services, everyone was genuinely friendly. Several times, someone passing by just said to us, “thank you for visiting Mexico”. And Kimberly even found a Pokemon pal – she always plays Pokemon on her phone wherever she goes, and so she began playing it right away for the first time in Mexico. Whereupon a young man said, “Ah, you play Pokemon? So do I!” And he whipped out his own phone and they began comparing notes.
Our dentist’s office was only a few blocks from the border – as is everything else in town. So we sauntered to it, and found it in a picturesque little courtyard. We entered the pleasant little reception room and were greeted by the staff, who all speak excellent English. Most of the time during what would turn out to be three visits, we were dealing with a very congenial fellow named George (who, we gather, is the one we had spoken to on the phone). A few other patients came in, and one woman asked us if we’d been here before. When we replied no, she said, “Ah, she’s the best. I’ve been coming here for fifteen years”. Evidently, we’d made a sound choice.
Without much waiting, we were ushered into examination rooms, where the dentist and her assistants took some x-rays with a device that we had never seen before. Unlike the cumbersome machines we normally see, this was a handheld contraption that looked like some kind of weapon from Star Wars. The good news was that Dennis needed only 3 crowns instead of 4, and did not need a root canal. The bad news was that Kimberly did need a root canal, her first ever – the tooth that needed a crown was too far gone to salvage otherwise. So she took his endodontist appointment, which turned out to be in an office on the other side of the courtyard.
The reception room of the endodontist (Dr. Jose Armando Hernandez Mejia) was, like the other reception room, quite aesthetically pleasing and had some especially cool artistic touches. Kimberly’s debut in the world of root canals, however, was not quite so cool; because the problem had progressed for so long, the roots had become calcified, which basically means they had turned into concrete, and drilling them out required an effort just shy of jack hammers and TNT. It was so exhausting for both doctor and patient that it was divided into two sessions; the doctor did half of the work on this first day, then had her return a few days later to complete it. And despite the extra time and effort and the additional office visit, there was no additional cost.
So all told, our three excursions into Molar City netted us 4 crowns, a root canal, and a cleaning. These, plus x-rays and a couple of other little services, cost us just under two grand – an amazing bargain to Americans who don’t know any better than to believe that dentistry is supposed to be a luxury. We paid by writing checks, which resulted in a little snafu that caused us a bit of embarrassment. Since we were out of practice writing checks, we were a bit rusty. Consequently, when Dennis wrote the first one, in the amount of 1100 dollars, he forgot to put the zeroes to represent the cents. So when it was processed a few days later, the bank read it as 11 dollars! Fortunately, we caught the error and immediately called and explained the problem to George. He was very understanding, and said we could just pay it when we came back in. And fortunately, that was the only check, of the 4 we wrote, that there was any problem with. And when we did go back and wrote a new check, we did it very meticulously and very accurately –well, after a couple of attempts, anyway.
Overall, our first adventure in dental tourism went quite smoothly. The biggest drawback was the wait in line to get back across the border. The first time, we stood in line for exactly an hour; the second and third time were 20 to 30 minutes. We’ve heard that on the busiest days (winter is busier than summer) it can take two hours! But the wait, however long, gives you the opportunity to become acquainted with the other people in line, who always seem to have interesting stories. Also, you will be entertained by musicians seeking tips, as wells as peddlers selling local arts and crafts – some of which are quite appealing. We felt bad, however, for some of the mothers who were trying to sell things while also tending to their young children – in some cases even breastfeeding them.
Once you get to the checkpoint, it’s smooth sailing. The agents just ask you what was the purpose of your visit and what you bought that you’re bringing back. A minute or two later, you’re back in your homeland.
So, our first dental tourism expeditions behind us, we now could chew confidently with our brand new imported teeth. And enjoy camping on the quiet, isolated reservation land with a clear view of the stars, before heading on the bright lights, honking car horns, congested freeways, and smoggy horizons of L.A.