I arrived in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, on a Tuesday, and the next day a driver whisked me to the clinic, where I was reassured. I saw state-of-the-art equipment and learned that several of the dentists had trained at American dental schools. The dentist I chose had done some training at Baylor College of Dentistry in Texas, now Texas A&M College of Dentistry. The staff was fluent in English.
At home, a wise person would probably spread out this kind of ordeal over several months. But the Costa Rican dentist was eager to get everything done right away, and my time was limited. So, for the next 6½ hours they ground and they pierced and they grated and they chipped. That’s a lot of Novocain. And conversation between staff members was in rapid Spanish, which Americans who don’t speak the language might find disconcerting.
It would take a few days to make the crowns, so my wife and I took a short flight to the Drake Bay area, where we snorkeled, swam and poked around the mangroves. My mouth was sore for about a day, but ibuprofen and a few refreshing “leche de pantera” nonalcoholic cocktails took care of that.
When I returned to San Jose for the fitting, an interesting thing happened. One crown did not sit perfectly. The dentist explained that he could grind it down, but best practice was to cast a new one. That, however, would take time, and he knew my schedule was tight. I appreciated his honesty, and it was nice to be given a choice. I opted to wait for the new crown, which he glued in the night before my flight home. It fit perfectly.
Total dental bill: $2,580, including anesthetics. Because our dental plan is a preferred provider organization, Aetna says we can get reimbursed for some of this expense, but it is still working on that.
My wife’s and my airfare and a week in a San Jose hotel ran about $1,000. Throw in $500 for meals and incidentals, and the total cost of the dental trip/vacation came in under $4,100. People who live close to Mexico and can drive across the border to dental centers such as Los Algodones would have much lower costs.
That math shows that dental tourism for people who live far from the Mexican border makes economic sense only if you require significant expensive dentistry, such as crowns, implants or veneers, which would cost more than about $5,000 in the United States. And in return for the savings — and the cheap tropical vacation — you have to be comfortable traveling in a foreign country and willing to accept some extra risk.
Generally, your local dentists will repair a loose crown they installed at no charge in the first year or two. If something goes wrong with my Costa Rican crowns, I’ll probably have to pay a local dentist about what it costs to do a crown to take care of that. But after more than four months, I’ve had no complaints.
I can only say that most guests at my San Jose hotel were there for the dentistry. Most were return customers. They had beautiful smiles.