Coronavirus Chronicles: A Broken Tooth and an Unplanned Trip to Mexico

As soon as you exit the turnstile into Mexico, the dentist is on the right

Last Saturday started like all the others during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Coffee, then a check to see exactly where this Saturday falls on the calendar. That’s not something I used to do, but after six weeks, time is starting to blur.

Everything changed at lunch. I heard Joe exclaim out of nowhere, “oh my God part of my tooth is gone.” Sure enough, the entire back third of his molar was just……gone. Returning to our previous substandard dentist in Arizona was absolutely out of the question.

I decided to call Dental Laser in Nogales, Mexico. We’ve been there several times, and have nothing but good things to say about them. The person answering the phone in fluent English made us an appointment for Monday morning.

Now my brain started to churn. Wasn’t the border closed? The media said the border was closed, right? I called the port in Nogales directly and asked if we could cross. The answer was, “if you’re in Mexico yes, you can come back to the U.S. That does not help me…..at all.

Nogales has three ports, Grand Ave. (also known as DeConcini), Morley, and Mariposa. The “internet” indicated that the Morley and Mariposa crossings were closed to foot traffic. That means Deconcini is open right? Although I have crossed into Mexico on foot several times, I neglected to get the name of the port. Usually, I just start walking and poof, end up in Mexico.

Cross the street and walk down the ramp to go to Mexico
Keep going this way

Getting to Mexico

This time I didn’t think it was going to be that easy. Joe’s appointment is at 10 am so we have to backward plan that from an hour and a half drive, plus find parking. With all that, we still don’t know for sure if we can cross. Somehow I convinced Joe to leave at 6:30 am for a 10 am appointment “just in case.” Once we arrived at the U.S. side of Nogales, we were disappointed to find that our usual, “Ed’s” border lot was closed. However, we found many other parking lots open for business.

We parked and paid our $5, the usual price, and started walking, still not knowing if the crossing was open or not. We crossed the street, went down the ramp, and followed the “To Mexico” sign just like last time. Other than dropping my backpack into an X-Ray machine, no one even looked or talked to us. No questions, no passports, nothing, we just walked right into Mexico. Imagine if it was that easy to come back into the U.S.

Dental Laser in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. We’ve been here several times.
The waiting room in Dental Laser

We arrived at the familiar bright blue Dental Laser clinic just before 8 am only to be told that they don’t start seeing patients until 9 am. We were hoping that Joe would get to go back early, but it was not meant to be. They were seeing their walk-in clients first. Meanwhile, we walked around and did a little unnecessary shopping. The shops in the plaza were open, and the vendors were desperate for business. The closures have all but ruined their way of life.

After the first hour of waiting. The “X’s” are for social distancing and to keep people spread out.
Some vendors are open, but not many

Waiting

I had exactly $120 cash on me, and we decided right then and there that we are going to spend or give it all away to help out whomever we can. I “purchased” an aluminum Aztec calendar bracelet for $20, while Joe found a tan, wool-blend, hand-woven blanket for $25. I also found a blanket for my sister. There wouldn’t be any price negotiations, not this time, not with the heart-wrenching look of starvation and desperation on people’s faces. We gave the rest of our cash away to a blind man, a homeless person, and a little girl. We wanted to do more, but had to get back to the business of Joe’s broken tooth.

Shopping in Nogales

Eating in Nogales

We went and checked in again only to find out they were not ready for Joe yet. Time for food. We bought street tacos with an unidentified meat of questionable origin that were the spiciest-hot I’ve ever eaten. The stand was busy with local customers so I assessed my chance at food poisoning as low. Is it a coincidence that this vendor sets up directly in front of an ice cream shop? I think not. Even after a bottle of water, my mouth was still burning. Only a scoop of vanilla quenched that fire.

There are three rules that I’ve always followed when it comes to eating and traveling:

  • Don’t eat at places directed towards tourists.
  • Only eat where locals are eating.
  • Only eat where it’s busy.

These rules have saved me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. The only time I’ve ever had food poisoning while traveling was from french fries cooked in truffle oil. Who cooks in truffle oil? Only a beachfront tourist resort in Tulum, Mexico. Just typing the words “truffle oil,” brings on a wave of nausea. Never again.

Ice Cream in Nogales, always good!

The Dental Work

Finally, right around 10 am it was Joe’s turn to go back. The first trip back was for imaging and the initial exam. Bad news when he returned. One of three things was going to happen. 1. He was going to lose the tooth. 2. He was going to get a root canal and crown 3. He was going to get a crown lengthening procedure and a custom overlay, which is a partial crown.

More waiting. We’ve been here three hours now.

About an hour later, Joe comes back a second time. Good news. They saved the tooth. As it turns out, the dentist we had been going to in the U.S. not once, but twice put a filling over an active cavity. This is what caused the massive break. The dentist, who had a Harvard degree on his wall, used a laser to cut away part of the gum and the rest of the cavity. The work was meticulous and timed to make sure it wasn’t rushed. There were also people observing the procedure. They told us they can create a custom partial overlay today, but it will take another hour.

Mexican blanket for my sister, $20.

We go out again for a Pepsi, and to fill Joe’s pharmacy prescriptions. He had three, which cost $15 total. There was nothing to do but to stroll the plaza again. More requests for money. I talked about this during our last trip to Nogales. It was late in the day and the the vendors were getting desperate. We decide to go back in because the vendors are getting extremely aggressive, even going so far as to put a bracelet on Joe’s arm that he didn’t ask to see.

The “Star” Pharmacy
Just walking around in Nogales

How Much Did It Cost?

Finally, at 2:30 his custom overlay is complete. You can’t tell there was a break at all and it looks like a brand new tooth.

Here’s a breakdown of our expenses for the day:

  • Crown lengthening – $145
  • Custom overlay – $455
  • My cleaning and imaging (since we were there)- $60
  • Random cash for handouts & purchases – $115
  • Pharmacy for 3 prescriptions $15
  • Gas for 150 miles round trip – $15
  • Four tacos, ice cream & Pepsi – $5

If this work was performed at a U.S. dentist we would have paid about $1000 for a crown lengthening procedure, and close to $3000 for the custom, laser-created overlay. Most insurance in the U.S would (maybe) pay for half of that, which would have left us paying $2,000 out of pocket for the procedure, plus another $800 in insurance premiums and deductibles.

  • Total Cost: $600 (not counting food, gas, & incidentals)
  • Total Savings: $2200

Would we cross the border again despite the drive, requests for money, and general hassle of a ten-hour dentist’s trip?  Of course, we would. Would you trade ten hours of your time for two-thousand dollars? The dentists are trained in the U.S. Their work, in my opinion, is a higher quality than what we have received in Arizona.

Does that mean there will never be a problem at the dentist in Mexico? Of course not. Problems can happen anywhere. I’m sure you may be wondering by now why dental work is so inexpensive in Mexico? Unfortunately, (or fortunately) depending on who you ask, America is a very lawsuit-happy, litigious society. That causes doctors and dentists to pay extremely high insurance premiums. They pass those costs on to the customer.

Mexico does not allow frivolous lawsuits like we do in the U.S. Therefore, their insurance premiums are much lower. Since they don’t have to pay out in lawsuits, the savings is passed on to the customer.

Joe beyond past time to go home. This is the U.S. side of Nogales.

Time to Cross back into the U.S.

At 3pm, Joe comes out and says, “ok, let’s get out of here.” We probably didn’t walk 100 feet from the dentist when we saw the line to cross the border snaking down the plaza. We’ve been in Nogales for over seven hours, we’re hot, hungry, dirty, and tired.

Joe ate even less than I did and is shaking from lack of food. I felt tears welling up in my eyes thinking that we would be standing in line in the heat for two hours. Suddenly we started to question this trip. Is it worth it? Would we do this again? Why is it taking so long? This is stupid!

It wasn’t long before my last question was answered. The line was long because of “social distancing.” Only a few people were being allowed in at a time. This meant that the line moved super fast. From the time we lined up until we exited customs was forty-one minutes. We were only asked if we had anything to declare, and other than two blankets and a cheap aluminum bracelet, we did not.

Note: If you have a SENTRI card (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection), which is $122.50 (plus a trip to the nearest in-person interview center), you can jump to the front of the line. The card works at any border crossing from Mexico or Canada, and is good for five years. The SENTRI card will not work when travelling from a destination other than Mexico or Canada. For that you would need the Global Entry Card, which is another $100.

Yeah…..

Again, this trip was an eye-opening privilege check to just how much we have back home. While it didn’t seem like much to pay $600 for dental work, that amount is a fortune in Mexico. The drive home was pretty quiet. We were tired, and all I could think about was how many people’s lives have been ruined by this pandemic.

What you may have read about Nogales simply isn’t true. We didn’t see the supposedly ubiquitous drug trafficking on every corner. There were no shootouts, and we’ve never been sick from the food. All we found were people desperately trying to earn a living in tough times. A trip across the border quickly brings perspective back to life here in Arizona.

After three hours of waiting…

Logistics

  • The DeConcini port crossing is the only pedestrian entrance open into Nogales at this time
  • Almost everyone was wearing a mask
  • Dental Laser Contact Info: Pesqueira Plaza 26, Fundó Legal, Fundo Legal, 84030 Nogales, Son., Mexico. (520) 223-4349
  • Dental Laser HomePage, they also have a FaceBook Page
  • Hours right now are 8am – 3pm.
  • There are several  “park and walk” lots on the U.S. side of the border, most are $5
  • You need a valid passport or passport card to re-enter the U.S.

Speaking of litigious societies, please read the disclaimer below.

DISCLAIMER: This is a post about our personal experience at a dentist in Mexico, it is purely for entertainment and informational purposes. Information may not be accurate and may have changed since the time of this writing. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Until next time….

Historic photo of Nogales, Sonora

One comment

  1. I have enjoyed looking through this site. I am taking a beginning class in blogging and for an assignment I came across this site. I also teach history and I would like to introduce some of your articles (especially about Europe since I teach World History) to my students next year. Thanks for sharing!

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