Border Crossing for a Root Canal

American patients on a budget travel to Los Algodones, a dental paradise for the underinsured

| November-December 2009

  • Dentistry Tourism

    image by Jason Rothe

  • Dentistry Tourism

Inches across the U.S. border there is a surreal oasis of tooth decay: Los Algodones, Baja, Mexico. Two-thirds of the town’s storefronts are dental clinics and approximately 85 percent of all employment is in the medical field. It is a mecca for American snowbirds and the uninsured. Los Algodones requires no appointment. Within 15 minutes of crossing the border, you can hear the screech of a drill and smell the enamel of your tooth as it vaporizes.

I have been blessed with fairly good health, excepting the occasional smash-up in my youth. But genetics failed me in the tooth department. Brushing doesn’t seem to cure the periodic breaking of teeth. My girlfriend Barbara and I once made a seven-minute 8mm horror film that we shot over several of my dental appointments. (When it screened at the San Francisco Art Institute’s student film festival, 10 people headed for the exit in the first 15 seconds.)

After I quit my job and lost my insurance, most of my dentistry was left to students. Their tentative hands convinced me I was in for trouble: the missed shot, the slipped drill, the likelihood of blood and pain. An extraction at a dental school in New York left me with an infection when, weeks later, I traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I walked into a threadbare pharmacy, pointed at my sore gum, and said the word infection. The owner returned with a sulfite that held the inflammation at bay for two weeks until I returned to the school and had them remove the sliver of bone poking through my gum.

In May 2008 a couple of my teeth started getting very sensitive. Unfortunately, they were molars: one above the other, and both in bridges. I knew I was in for some big bucks. My buddy Tommy, who lives in the desert in Southern California, mentioned a good dentist he’d been to in Mexico. I located the Clinica Integral Rubio online, booked an appointment, and burned up some frequent flyer miles for my ticket.



After I landed at the San Diego airport, the rental car agent attempted to upgrade my economy car to a midsized. “Are you crazy?” I asked. Gas prices were going up with every squeeze of the pump. My throbbing tooth kept me focused on my mission to save thousands of dollars by taking a medical holiday.

I picked up Tom and we headed southwest to the bottom of the Salton Sea, through an undulating landscape of sand and scrub, home to coyotes, desert tortoises, sidewinders, RVs,
and off-road vehicles. We listened to Radio Universidad Baja—an eclectic mix of heavy metal rockeros, reggae, and punk—for the next 60 miles, until we reached the Imperial Sand Dunes. Little vegetation turned into zero vegetation. Near the Arizona border, a small hill arose to the north with a tiny chapel on top. The exit sign said Felicity. Several miles west of Felicity we came upon the exit for the Quechan Indian Nation and the road leading to the Andrade border crossing, one of the smallest ports of entry in North America. We parked the rental in the paid lot and a few minutes later strolled into Mexico.

eugen
10/9/2015 9:27:45 AM

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eugen
10/9/2015 9:27:18 AM

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eugen
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