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Open wide.

When a friend of mine first told me about going to the Mexican border to get her teeth fixed, I was skeptical. Actually, horrified might be a better word. It’s bad enough having to dodge drug cartel violence, but having a half-rate dentist drill holes in your teeth while listening to machine gun fire outside? That’s the stuff that horror films are made of.

Let’s face it. Mexico doesn’t have the best reputation for safety these days and your teeth are one of the first things that people see when they meet you. Thanks, but no thanks.

But I had been experiencing some tooth pain and I visited a dentist in Texas. The X-rays came back and they weren’t good. I needed root canals, crowns, deep cleaning and it was going to be expensive. Very expensive.

I put it off for a while, but dentistry is like the IRS: It’s not going away. If you ignore it, it just gets worse.

I asked my friend Julie a few more questions about her experience, and she couldn’t have been more positive. She assured me that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I got her to give me her dentist’s number and gave him a call. I was trying to remember how to say “teeth” in Spanish when the dentist’s wife answered the phone in perfect English.  It turns out that many Mexican dentists speak English, which is a relief. Just remember: When you hear the dentist ordering tres Coronas on the phone, he’s not putting together an after-surgery party. Corona means “crown” in Spanish, so don’t get too excited. Lesson learned.

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A dental mall in Nuevo Progreso.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I overcame my fear of crossing into northern Mexico after driving my own car to Huasteca a few months ago. I quickly realized that no one seemed particularly interested in robbing and killing me or recruiting me to join their cartel. I had zero problems, and discovered that although Mexico can be dangerous in some places, by and large it’s still safer than many cities in the U.S. The town where my dentist, Dr. Cesar Cabrera, was located was a small village called Nuevo Progreso. I had never heard of it, but as soon as I Googled the city name, dozens of articles and ads about dentistry popped up.

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Dr. Cesar Cabrera.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Was I onto something? The more I read, the more I discovered that there are millions of Americans who get dental work done on the other side of the border. How could it be bad and still be so popular?

In spite of Nuevo Progreso’s small size, it has over 300 dental offices. There are other popular dentist towns in Mexico such as the self-proclaimed capital of Mexican dentistry, Los Algodones (across from Yuma, Arizona), but NP gets most of the business from Winter Texans—the flock of northern retirees who live in RVs or vacation homes in Texas during the winter season to avoid freezing in their native states or provinces. Many of them also come for cheap dentistry.

November through March can be very busy in NP with lots of these temporary Texans crossing the border for dental work and cheap medication. It turns out that there are as many pharmacies in NP as there are dentist offices. For most orders, a prescription isn’t necessary. If you run out of Ritalin, Cialis, or whatever else, you can go to a counter, order half a dozen boxes and enjoy cheap prices.  

It’s a common practice for U.S. citizens to do this daily and Customs is unlikely to question your purchases unless you bring back a trunkful. Jessica’s Pharmacy (turn right as soon as you cross into Mexico) seems to be one of the most popular options and their prices seem to be pretty consistent. I never met Jessica, but her father is so popular, he could probably run for president.

You can park your car on the Texas side of the border for $2, walk across the Rio Grande bridge for 50 cents, pass through a door and, poof, you’re in Mexico. No one even asks for your passport. Yet. The street looks undeniably like a Mexican border town with hawkers trying to corral you to a pharmacy or dentist. If you follow them, you’re likely to pay a commission as well as the normal price.

My dentist was located in a plaza with about 20 other small dentist offices immediately to the left of the bridge. Many are one-room affairs with a minimal waiting area and they’re not fancy. To keep pricing low, spaces are frugal, staff is small and the equipment isn’t as high-tech as what you’ll find in the U.S. That’s the trade-off. It’s like first class seats compared to economy seats. Pay a lot more to get to the same place in style, or don’t.

It really all comes down to price. Mexican dentists charge 10 to 20 percent of the prices that their U.S. counterparts get. I was quoted $3,000 for a root canal in the U.S. In Mexico, it’s $250. A crown is $250. Mexican dentists are fast, efficient and there’s no messing around. It took me two-and-a-half days to get an X-ray, three root canals, posts and have three crowns molded and “installed.” One crown wasn’t quite right, so my dentist sent it back and had it remade in an hour. It usually takes weeks in the U.S. While I waited, Vinnie’s Happy Teeth Bar served me $3 margaritas a few yards from my dentist’s office. The dentist office park has its own bar. Who needs nitrous oxide?

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

The dental assistant walked with me next door to a larger office to get X-rays, but they were ready in moments. My dentist slowly drilled my bad crowns off and was so careful, I felt no pain. When the root canal surgeon had her turn with me, she gave me anesthesia and I still didn’t feel a bit of the searing pain I was dreading. I’m not saying the experience was like being on vacation. Two-and-a-half days of sitting in a chair with your mouth wide open is tedious, but I never had any pain. Not even sore gums.

Dr. Cabrera took his time with me. He made sure everything fit, looked good and then rechecked it. Like magic, I was healed. Before I arrived in Mexico, I had fears that I’d have to get implants, teeth pulled, and a dental bill I could never afford. When it was all over, the bill was $1,800. Not $15,000 to $20,000 that a U.S dentist had quoted. It was a tenth of the price and completely finished within 48 hours.

The only danger I felt in Mexico was that I’d spend too much in the souvenir shop across the street. Seriously, you can just drive your car across the bridge and load up with inexpensive tequila, colorful Mexican crafts, serapes, and taxidermy frogs playing miniature guitars. Who doesn’t want to get one of those as a Christmas present from me?

At 7 p.m., NP shuts down. There’s literally nothing open, so most travelers cross back over and stay in or near Weslaco, Texas. If you have a car in Mexico and want to stay there, you can find inexpensive hotels in nearby Reynosa. McAllen is about 40 minutes away and has the most options. I was super impressed with the Cambria Hotel. I’ve never stayed at a hotel with a Bluetooth mirror.

How do you find a dentist? Read the reviews. I was very happy with Dr. Cabrera, but second generation dentist Dr. X has a cool name and a good reputation as well. Have a plan before you arrive so you don’t end up at a random dentist no one has ever heard of. There are good and bad dentists everywhere, so choose wisely. It’s a 6-hour drive from Houston, but you’ll see visitors that fly in from all over the U.S.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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