MOLAR CITY: Welcome To The Mexican Town Crawling With US Tourists Who Need Root Canals

For Americans looking to mix in a little dental work with their vacations, there is no better place than Vicente Guerrero, a small Mexican border town better known by its nickname: Los Algodones (translation: Molar City).

Mexico is a top destination for so-called medical tourists from the United States who go South of the Border for significantly cheaper dental work, eyeglasses, plastic surgery, and prescription drugs. In Los Algodones, some 350 dentists work within a few blocks of the city center, NPR recently reported.

Photographer Andrew Waits recently headed down to the town for a day to figure out why it has become a bustling medical mecca.

Waits shared a number of the photos with us here, and you can check out the rest at his website.

Many people travel to Los Algodones because they don't have insurance, and they can get treatment and medication there at a fraction of the cost in America.

Visitors can drive across the border or park in a large holding lot and walk into Los Algodones. Parking is $US8 per day, and the town is right across the border.

After parking, visitors walk through customs. You can generally bring whatever you want with you to Mexico, but you are checked more closely upon your return.

Los Algodones is only four square blocks in size. The tiny town is packed with over 350 dentists, as well as numerous plastic surgeons, optometrists, and pharmacies.

A bustling economy has sprouted up to support the tourists, with restaurants, bars, hairdressers, and clothing shops for people to visit while they wait for their appointments.

Winter is the busiest season for medical tourists here. This dentist had two mobile phones to manage all of his appointments when Waits visited in March.

The vast majority of tourists Waits saw in Algodones are senior citizens, like this man.

Many of these older visitors had to spend a ton of time waiting. Everywhere Waits looked, there were people waiting in front of clinics for appointments.

Temperatures in the town on a hot day can hit the high 80s. That can be difficult for the many senior citizens waiting in the heat for their appointments.

While patients wait for their medical appointments in this heat, locals sell baskets, hats, jewelry, and other touristy trinkets.

The main industry here is healthcare, though. The dental industry is so busy that it can support five dental labs to make crowns, implants, and other pieces of dental hardware.

Implants and crowns are the most common dental work, Waits says. Most patients can get fitted for implants and crowns and have them installed in one day.

Even procedures that require custom-made dental hardware can be done the same day. The dental labs often produce custom hardware just a few hours after a patient is fitted.

'Tourist coordinators,' like this man, work to corral tourists into the medical offices that they represent, promoting their care as the best and cheapest.

The Purple Pharmacy is one of the most popular pharmacies in Los Algodones. Outside, street hawkers lure potential customers in by announcing prices and even offering to help out customers who may not have a prescription.

The Purple Pharmacy's distinctive purple shopping bags litter the American side of the border. Some people have complained that the drugs it sells are counterfeit, and the FDA has begun to express concern at the number of Americans taking medicine from Mexico.

With so many dentists, you have to be sure to pick the right one. The tourist office in nearby Yuma, Arizona provides information about how to pick high-quality dental practices. The best plan is to do your research beforehand and set up an appointment.

'Some practices are very modern and clean,' Waits says. 'Others look like they were set up the week before.'

Dentistry is cheap in Mexico because labour and real estate are inexpensive. The government subsidizes many dentists' education, so few graduate with much debt. That means dentists don't need to charge as much.

A teeth cleaning costs approximately $US30. A root canal costs $US200. A crown goes for $US300. Dental implants run between $US1200 and $US1700.

Most of the patients Waits talked to were repeat customers and were very happy with the work they'd had done.

At the end of the day, the tourists head back over the border with their prescriptions and dental work completed. Crossing the border on foot can be more tedious than by car, often with a 2-3 hour wait in the afternoon.

Americans do all kinds of crazy things to save money...

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