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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | April 2008 

Going South for Inexpensive Oral Hygiene; Mexican Dentistas
email this pageprint this pageemail usMonique Polak - National Post
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La Penita de Jaltemba, Mexico - If you're looking for gringos in this dusty town on Mexico's Pacific coast, try Yuyis, a breakfast spot on main street; Hinde & Jaime's bar near the beach - or Oralcare, the dental clinic on Calle Alfred Bonfil, a block over from main street.

"Every time I go, there's another white guy or two in there. I say, 'Where you from?' and they say, 'From B.C. or somewhere else in Canada,'" says Ken Sloan, a vacationer from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., who just spent his third winter in an RV camp in La Penita.

Sloan, who recently had a cap ground down and underwent periodontal surgery at Oralcare - all for 1,150 pesos or about $115 - is one of an increasing number of Canadians and Americans who are getting their teeth fixed while on holiday in Mexico.

Sloan turned up at Oralcare after he came down with a bad toothache, but other tourists book their dental appointments at the same time they book their flights- or their spots in RV parks. Many, especially those who are retired, have no dental insurance at home; some have only partial coverage. Either way, most of them feel like they're saving a bundle - and getting good treatment.

"I know a family of four from near Prince George, B.C., who paid for a two-week vacation down here with what they saved on their dental work," says Sherri Billingsley, a vacationer from Calgary. "The trip cost them way less than it would have just to get their teeth fixed in Canada."

The sparkling white clinic and its sleek silver and blue Oralcare sign look out of place on the pitted, cobbled street where neighbouring establishments include a lavenderia that smells of Javex and a bakery that sells hard rolls. And though not all of the dentists who work here speak English, the place, which opened last winter, is designed to appeal to gringos. Receptionist Monserrat Mendoza Alvarez, who studied English in Texas and Oregon, takes appointments - and acts as chief translator.

John Hamilton, a retired mining promoter from Thorn-hill, Ont., says he's never seen X-ray machines in Toronto like the one they've got in La Penita. "This one's wired right into the computer," says Hamilton, who's been wintering in Mexico for the last decade. That about coincides with the last time Hamilton had dental treatment in Canada. That work included bridges, dentures and five implants. "With those banditos back home, I spent over $50,000 [on] my mouth. What an idiot I was!"

This winter, Hamilton had a root canal and periodontal work at the La Penita clinic. The root canal cost him $125. "My wife Annette had one in Toronto two years ago and it cost $1,250 back then," he says.

Juan Pablo Rivera Andrade and Samuel Vallejo Torres are part of Oralcare's team of dentists. Andrade works year round at the clinic; Torres comes to La Penita from Guadalajara for the winter months, to tend to the steady stream of vacationers wanting dental work. Both Andrade and Torres were trained in Mexico. Other team members include specialists who come to La Penita on a rotating basis to perform procedures including root canals, implants and periodontal and orthodontic work.

Andrade and Torres handle more routine dental procedures like cleanings, fillings, posts, crowns, caps, extractions and partial bridges. Torres says gringos make good patients. "They never complain about anything. They're more co-operatve than Mexicans. And gringos always come a half hour early," he says.

"Mexicans on are on Mexican time," Andrade adds. "That means they're late - or they sometimes don't show up at all."

Neither dentist can say more than a few words in English. But Torres knows the important words - like "Open" and "Close." Alvarez, who is translating, can't help laughing as she explains that Torres learned to say "Open" the hard way. "He was saying, 'abierto' - which means 'open' in Spanish - last year to a patient. But the patient bit down on his finger."

Torres waves his right index finger in the air - he still has the scar to mark the language lesson.

Not everyone who gets dental treatment in these parts is a satisfied customer. Doris Chabot, who moved from Manitoba to La Penita in 2004 to take up a new career as a real estate agent, says that although she has had some excellent dental work in Mexico, some has been problematic.

"Last year, I ended up with trismus - a kind of lockjaw - after a root canal that I had done in Puerto Vallarta," she says. Trismus, which occurs when the jaw muscles lock up and can be precipitated by prolonged dental work, is not an unheard of complication, even in Canada. "I had to have the work redone and the trismus took months till it healed. Thank God for the specialist from Guadalajara who came to Puerto Vallarta to help," Chabot said.

A retired social worker, Chabot cautions tourists to be choosy about which dentist they go to. "Be very careful and make sure it's hygienic," she said.

But Hamilton says he'd trust just about any Mexican dentist. "I wouldn't be afraid to go to any of them," he says. In fact, Hamilton doesn't just trust his teeth to Mexican dentists - he also trusts his 1995 GMC van to a mechanic he knows in Poza Rica, Mexico.

"I buy parts in Texas. I got a motor for the passenger window, another one for the windshield wipers installed, the whole interior reupholstered, the rust removed, and most of the car painted for about one fifth of what it'd cost at home," he says.

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