By Carla King
Most of my friends who’ve had medical care in Baja didn’t cross the border specifically for medical tourism. For example, last year, when an off-road motorcycling friend broke his leg in several places, he ended up in Hospital Almater in Mexicali, which specializes in orthopedics and is popular with US citizens for medical tourism. The bill was $6,400, very cheap by US standards.
As far back as two decades ago, I remember that a work colleague who developed a painful toothache while she was on vacation in Mexico reluctantly and in desperation went to a dentist. She reported being surprised that the facility was more modern than her dentist’s at home, and the treatment a fraction of the cost.
As time goes by, I hear more and more stories about medical treatments in Mexico, specifically in Baja but also in Cancun and other places where gringos gather. The reports are good.
Medical tourism going viral
As medical costs in countries like the US soar, many Americans are more motivated to face their fears and step over the line. In her Dear Alyne video in June (which went viral), Alyne explains the process. (Her video describes experiences with dental care in Egypt and Mexico.)
It’s becoming common to combine a Cabo San Lucas vacation with medical treatments in dermatology (skin cancer, mole and tag removals, laser treatments), and cosmetic procedures ranging from Botox to Butt Lifts.
After my dental experience two years ago, I’ve been recommending medical tourism to my adventure travel friends who come to Baja. After all, they’re already here, so why not spend some extra days getting things done?
Last week, Jonathan and I crossed the border not for motorcycling, not for off-roading, not for boating or scuba diving, but to go to our dentist in Tijuana. We found our dentist when, a couple of years ago, Jonathan developed a tooth infection. After getting a $16,000 quote from his San Diego dentist with a $3K+ deductible, we were definitely seeking an alternative.
On the recommendation of my friend Elaine Masters, travel writer and founder of Trip Wellness, we headed across the border to a holistic dental and medical center she’d been visiting for years. Four hours and $400 later, Jonathan was a new man. I had a $25 while-you-wait teeth cleaning, checked my email at Starbucks, and explored the shopping mall being built a block away.
On that trip, we met two other couples in the waiting room. One pair was from Australia and the other from Japan. For less than the price of their deductibles, they got their dental work, accommodation in a five-star Tijuana hotel, and a Baja beach vacation.
Fast forward two years. Jonathan had a molar extracted and I had two toxic (mercury amalgam) fillings replaced. We both had Vitamin C IV drips and they fitted me with an oxygen breather (so I wouldn’t breathe in the toxic mercury dust). Our total bill? $1,025.
We’ll head back in a couple of weeks so Jonathan can get an implant to replace that molar. Our dental center, which is part of a holistic care center, is also having a dermatologist come in to look over our moles. I may also get a hair analysis ($60) and Chelation IV ($120) for metal detox (to get rid of any mercury and metals poisoning). These are just a few of the available treatments on their menu.
Crossing the border
Despite the fact that the San Ysidro border crossing is the world’s busiest, crossing is easy. We parked at the Border Station Parking Lot next to the border and the Las Americas Premium Outlets, where we planned to do some shopping after our return. They offer secure, staffed, fenced, short and long-term parking. It’s open 24/7.
Before our pick-up at 8:30 a.m. we got some pesos at the exchange across the street (we didn’t really need them but they’re pretty cheap right now) and a coffee and pastry at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Then we walked over to the McDonald’s because, frustratingly, the bathrooms in the mall were all closed.
Our driver picked us up right on time. Other passengers included a couple from Laguna Beach, also crossing for dental work, and a woman who’d flown to LA from Panama for a stem cell treatment, which she does every year. We ended up making fast friends with all three.
By lunchtime, we were done. We paid by credit card and piled into the transport van. We were back in San Diego in about an hour. (Crossing south takes about two minutes. Crossing north can take over 45 minutes.)
We checked out of the parking lot and drove the 30 seconds into the Las Americas Premium Outlets. Our jaws were sore but we were hungry, so we checked out the food trucks in the parking lot and decided on Seafood Las Gueras. Good choice! Two grilled seafood tacos and a Baja shrimp cocktail later, we were ready to shop. (We purchased at Crocs, J. Crew, The North Face, and Tommy Bahama.)
You have choices
These days, it’s fairly easy to choose a dentist or other medical professional, what with Yelp and other social sites that give honest reviews. Personal recommendations are always best, of course. I’ve had enthusiastic recommendations for three different dentists in Tijuana and I’m sure there are many other good ones.
But what if you’re not close to Tijuana? Well, you can fly into San Diego or Tijuana airport, or head to Yuma, Arizona.
To the east, the small town of Los Algodones is just south of the border near Yuma, and they have a thriving medical tourism culture due to all the snowbirds who winter there.
Los Algodones offers “more pharmacies, doctors, dentists, and opticians in a concentrated area than anywhere else in the world, according to a TripSavvy post. “Here, Americans and Canadians alike can find heavily discounted prescriptions, eye-glasses, and medical and dental care that are each as high quality as the same procedure or service back home.”
Need a guide?
You don’t need a guide. You really don’t! But I understand you may be intimidated.
For example, after Dr. Mark McMahon retired from his dental practice he drove from Tuscon to the tip of South America. He returned home to open what might be described as a medical escort service. His company, Coyote Dental, vets and recommends services and transports clients from Tuscon to Nogales. They will soon provide referrals in Los Algodones in Baja, plus Thailand and Costa Rica.
MedTrava is an Austin-based company that can help you choose a facility for your treatment or procedure.
I can’t help but think that more of these kinds of services will be popping up in the near future.
Enjoy the adventure
Nobody wants their medical care to be an adventure. It’s hard enough to research and get good medical care in the US. (And have you ever had that nasty surprise where your insurance didn’t cover all of the treatment? Yeah. I thought so.)
However, I am not alone in finding that getting dental care in Baja is less an adventure than a pleasant surprise. First of all, you just need to Google for recommendations. There is a lot of information online and I’ll bet that, if you start asking around, someone you know knows someone who has had things done.
Then, there’s none of that pesky paperwork to fill out. Everything is so much more straightforward. And they go out of their way to make sure you have a great experience.
They will set you up with accommodations (many medical services are located on the bottom floor of the nicer hotels) and they transport you to and from the border. Like my dentist, they can also refer you to other medical professionals, and even arrange appointments.
And then there’s the cost. Jonathan and I treated ourselves to two nights in the Sheraton Resort Hotel in San Diego, got dental care, went shopping at the outlet mall, and had dinner at one our favorite Little Italy restaurants, all for less than the deductible would have cost with our previous insurance. We’re planning our next medical adventure with a stay at the Valle de Guadalupe or maybe beachside in Ensenada.
We’d like to take our parents for dental, optical, and dermatology and also cheap prescription refills, but they’re still a bit nervous. Maybe we’ll start with the optician and ease them into dental and orthopedics. Then head on into the peninsula for more Baja adventures.
Be safe, do your research, and enjoy the adventure. Here are some places to look.
- Yelp is a great resource for so many things, including medical.
- Search the Baja Nomad forum for threads on the kind of treatment you’re looking for.
- Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody’s Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism, is a book that may answer some questions for you, too.
- Don’t forget Google. You never know what you’ll find when you google something. Once you’ve found a provider give them an extra little google and see what turns up.
- Don’t be put off by the occasional one-star review or disaster. Most doctors, worldwide, have them.
- Med Retreat is a membership-based service that can help you make a decision about where to have your procedure or treatment. Just fill out the form and you’ll get a return email telling you how to proceed.
- How to Pay for a Beach Vacation with One Hospital Visit is the title of a chapter in Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Body. Admittedly, I am a Tim Ferriss fan-girl and I love all his books and podcasts. The lifestyle, health, and fitness info in this book is priceless. This is a very short but potent chapter.
- You may be able to get a medical fast pass for the San Ysidro crossing. More info here.
Your thoughts? Recommendations?
Have you had a Baja medical adventure? Good or bad? Questions? I’d love to know your thoughts and that’s what the comments section below is for. Let’s have a discussion!
About the author
Carla King is an adventure travel journalist and author who spends much of the winter in the Mulegé area halfway down the peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. Find her other posts on Adventuring in Baja here.