Every winter, thousands of people visit the small Mexican town of Los Algodones for what has been coined ‘medical tourism’, specifically dental care, eyeglasses, and medications. At about 1/3 the cost of dental care in the US, the price is right, but is the quality there? And what about safety concerns? On Tuesday the 7th I made the crossing to visit a dentist for the first time in five years and find out for myself.
Los Algodones is located less than a half-hour west of Yuma, Arizona, and there are numerous RV parks in area that can be used as a staging point, Q Casino being the closest. There are also several free boondocking options within a reasonable distance – I camped on BLM land along American Girl Mine Road in Winterhaven, CA.
While taking a vehicle across is perfectly doable (Los Algodones is where Katina and I crossed to go down to Rocky Point a week ago), parking is limited on the narrow streets. The easiest thing to do is walk across. For $6 you can park your vehicle at the Quechan parking lot, which is the very last stop on the US side. The lot can accommodate RVs if you do not have a separate driving vehicle. From there it’s a short walk to cross the border, and Algodones is immediately on the other side.
There are a lot of dentists, pharmacies, and eyeglass stores to choose from, and many of them have hawkers out from who will try their darnedest to get you in their store. For dental care you can go in without an appointment or a plan and find service, but for the best experience I recommend finding one you like ahead of time and making an appointment to be sure you can get in.
Just as in the US, there are good dentists and bad dentists in Algodones, but the internet has made it easy to look up reviews and get recommendations to make an informed decision. RV forums like RV.net and the Escapees Forum have threads dedicated to dental care in Algodones if you do a search, and RV blogs are also a good place to go – Wheeling It, and Cheap RV Living both have posts about dental work in Algodones and I’m sure there are others. That first visit I crossed with a group of fellow RVers (safety in numbers, right?), and my decision was influenced by which dentists the members of our group were going to see.
In the end I picked Dra. Eva Ureña, who has a good reputation and is a member of the American Dental Association. Her office is farther away from the main hubbub and the entrance is unassuming, no hawker stands out front. She gets a lot of business from referrals and is always busy, so making an appointment is necessary – I’d made mine early in January.
The building is nice looking and well-kept on the outside, and the waiting area inside is nicely decorated. The receptionist speaks good English, and the wait to be seen in short, in no time at all I’m being whisked into the back. The exam rooms in back are also well-appointed and clean. The equipment looks new, the chair is comfortable. I could be at any dentist office in the US.
My cleaning is done by a hygienist, and is more comfortable than cleanings I’ve had done in the US. I’m not sure if this is because she’s more careful about it or because she wasn’t as thorough. Other people who’ve visited dentists in Algodones have said similar things and I’d read about it ahead of time, so it didn’t come as a surprise. Even though it’s been five years since I last saw a dentist, I don’t have a lot of tartar – I never do. I do brush vigorously and floss daily, but I think this is partly due to genetics too.
Dr. Ureña does the exam afterward. Her English is more accented than the receptionist, but is still perfectly understandable. She tells me what I already know from past trips to the dentist, the enamel on my teeth is weak and I’m prone to getting white spots that eventually become small cavities. I use a high-fluoride mouthwash daily to help counteract this, but I always have cavities when I go to the dentist. After five years I have 11 of them. Nine little ones and two regular-sized ones. I’m not surprised, I was expecting to need fillings. She prescribes this paste with a much higher concentration of fluoride than my mouthwash with directions to use it once a day before bed.
The next day I come back alone to get six of the fillings. Dr. Ureña thinks I’ll only need to be numbed where the two larger cavities are, but I’m a wuss and after a small sound of protest she numbs me for the small ones too. She starts the procedure, but leaves after the two larger cavities are drilled to work on someone else, and another lady takes over.
This other lady is an unknown, which makes me nervous. But she seems competent and things go smoothly.
It takes about an hour and 15 minutes total for the six fillings. When the Novocain (Procaine) wears completely off an hour later I have some soreness from holding my jaw open that long, but no tooth sensitivity which is amazing for me. I’m able to eat normally as soon as the numbness is gone, no problems.
Almost a week later on the 14th, I go back for the second round of fillings. I’d anticipated my mouth needing that time to recover between procedures but honestly would have been fine with just a day or two between.
The five small fillings on my left side take about 45 minutes and they numb me automatically without me having to ask which I appreciate. It’s the same lady and hygienist doing the work, Dr. Ureña stops by once or twice to check up on them but doesn’t interfere. Again I’m satisfied with how things go.
Of course, only time will tell how good of a job they really did. I intend to update this blog post periodically with the state of my fillings. In the meantime, as a person who experiences mild to moderate anxiety over dental procedures, I’m happy with the care I received. The people who worked on my mouth seemed competent, their manner was professional, the clinic was clean, and I actually had less pain and discomfort than I usually have after a visit to the dentist. Right now I’m considering this experiment a success, assuming that the fillings stand the test of time.
Likewise, I felt safe visiting Los Algodones. The tourist areas were kept very clean and regularly policed. Having veterans to go with the first time was beneficial as they knew where to go and what to eat (mmm, food cart tacos), it also relieved any worry I had about safety. The second and third trips I crossed alone and had no problems. There were so many other Americans around that I was never truly alone. As with Rocky Point, the hawkers could get annoying at times, but if you just keep saying no they’ll leave you be.
- Cleaning, exam, and fluoride paste: $55
- 9 small fillings (includes Novocain): $40 each, $360
- 2 standard fillings (includes Novocain): $80 each, $160
- Total: $575
Recap and additional notes:
- You need a Passport to cross. Mexico doesn’t care, but it’s necessary to get back in the US.
- The border station is open from 6 am to 10 pm, but it’s probably best to limit visitation to daylight hours.
- The tourist zone of Los Algodones (where all the dentists, pharmacies, and eyeglass stores are found) is kept clean, regularly policed, and considered quite safe. The residential areas outside the tourist zone are not kept clean, and I can’t speak as to how safe they are.
- Despite being in the Pacific time zone, many businesses in Algodones follow Arizona time.
Bring cash. The street vendors take cash only. Some businesses will accept checks (my dentist did) but not all of them do, so confirm payment options when you’re making your appointment so you know what to bring with.
- Not all dentists in Algodones are equal, look online and ask your RVing friends for recommendations for the best experience.
- The general rule of thumb is that dental care in Algodones costs about 1/3 of what it does in the US, the work I had done follows this. If you know you need work done before arriving, this should give you an idea of what to expect cost-wise.
- To see a specific dentist, you’ll want to make an appointment ahead of time to make sure you can get in.
- Pharmacies and eyeglass centers are walk-in. Most of the eyeglass places I peeked in guaranteed a two-hour turnaround time. If you have multiple things to do in town, get your glasses order in first to make best use of your time.
- There are several purple buildings in town called ‘Purple Pharmacy’. They’re not all owned by the same person though and prices and stock will vary between them. If you can’t find something in one place, try another.
- The hawkers are much bolder than salesmen in the US. Get use to saying ‘no’ repeatedly. Avoiding eye-contact and walking with a purpose helps if you’re in a hurry. If you show any interest in something and decide not to buy it, expect that it’ll take a while for ‘no’ to sink in.
- The worst time to cross back into the US is after lunch, the lines at border patrol are longest from about 1-3pm Arizona time. If you can, come early and go back before the lunch crowd. Or, come later and wait to cross until after the lunch crowd leaves.
And that’s a wrap. Have you had dental work done in Mexico? We’d love to hear about your experience in the Comments section. Questions are also welcome!
* Please, I’m not looking for dental care advice. I shared my personal health information so that you’d be better informed about the cost and quality of care that you might receive down in Algodones, and I couldn’t do that without telling you what I had done. Thank you for keeping comments on this post about the work and not about me.
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