In the southeastern corner of California, on the lands of the Quechan tribe, there is a parking lot the size of two football fields, where, for six dollars, Americans can leave their car all day to spend the day in Los Algodones, Mexico — the city of dentists.
On a Monday morning in mid-June at 9 a.m., the parking lot is a quarter full. It takes less than two minutes to walk from my car to the border, where pink flowers line a sidewalk that winds around an unmarked white building and into Mexico. Bolero plays softly from speakers hidden in the trees. No border-patrol officials stop me to ask for identification, but, within seconds of setting foot in Mexico, I’m greeted by a half-dozen “pickers,” each promising to guide me to the best dentist.
“People sometimes show us their passports when they walk into Mexico and we’re like: ‘No, you don’t need. Just come in,’” says Santiago Guzmán, who has worked as a picker for seven years. Guzmán is in his early 30s, wears a T-shirt and fitted jeans, and has straight, extremely white teeth.
Los Algodones has a population hovering around 5,000 and contains approximately 350 dentists. Prices are significantly lower than in the United States. A crown runs as low as $180, a filling as little as $30.
The pickers work for tips, sometimes earning up to 10 percent of any business they bring into a clinic. Dentures, implants, and veneers are the most lucrative. Guzmán says he makes “between one and 500 dollars a day.” Business slows down in summer, when daily temperatures average more than 100 degrees and many Palm Springs and Arizona snowbirds have returned north. Guzmán estimates that 90 percent of the dental patients are senior citizens, though recently many Americans and Canadians in their 30s and 40s have begun traveling to Los Algodones for affordable and fast dental work.
Aligning with a reputable dentist is key to each picker’s success. Every block has at least one shuttered clinic. Rent on office space starts at around $400 a month, but large buildings can run as high as $3,000.
“People sometimes show us their passports when they walk into Mexico and we’re like: ‘No, you don’t need. Just come in.’”
“You know if someone has more than 20 years here and has a lot of patients, they’re probably good,” Guzmán says. “A lot of offices close.”
One of the oldest practices is that of Dr. Bernardo Magaña, who set up shop here in 1969. His office, a three-story cement building painted a shade of grape, is the first you see upon entering Los Algodones. A shiny black Mercedes is parked in front in a space marked RESERVED FOR DR. MAGAÑA.
To enter Magaña’s office, you must first pass a pharmacy and an optical center, the two other popular Los Algodones businesses patronized by Americans. The waiting room decor seems more inspired by that of an upscale Hollywood plastic surgeon than that of a typical American dental office. The chairs are black leather, the floor black tile. Marble busts flank the room. An innocuous variety of techno plays on the stereo. All the signage is in English.
Only two people are waiting when I arrive — Don Runnells and his wife Glenda Griffith, both 83, of Yuma, Arizona. They sit on opposite sides of the room, Runnells watching the soccer game on the television, Griffith reading a paperback.
Griffith is here for help with some ill-fitting dentures she received from another Los Algodones dentist a few months ago. She’s been on a liquid diet since and has lost 30 pounds. She began coming here when a dentist in the U.S. recommended it. She has no insurance.
“About everyone I know comes here,” she says, mentioning friends as far away as Tacoma, Washington.
Magaña calls me into his office. He is slight of build, white-haired and -bearded, and wears a crisp white lab coat. An ornate Western saddle sits on a stand next to his desk, and photographs of horses cover the walls. I ask if he rides, and he shows me pictures of the 60 Arabian horses he used to keep on his 500-acre ranch outside of town.
“No horses anymore,” he says. “I’m almost 76. It’s not easy to ride a horse. I prefer to ride my Mercedes-Benz.”
Magaña grew up 30 miles from Los Algodones, went to dental school in Mexico City in the 1960s, and moved back home to distance himself from the violence of the Mexican Student Movement of 1968. He set up his practice soon after, purchasing his current location in 1973.
The dental work here is as good as in the U.S., he says, and, in many cases, better. It is only the labor that makes it cheaper.
Magaña’s prices, however, are markedly higher than those I see advertised around Los Algodones — $400 to $600 for a crown, for example, as opposed to $180 to $350.
Magaña admits that he used to get angry at patients who questioned his prices, but says he’s learned to control it.
“The problem with me is I’m not too nice. I get angry especially when Mexican people come from the U.S. and they think with one dollar, they can get everything. It is cheaper, but not free,” he says. “After 50 years, I am quiet.”
When I leave his office, only one person sits in the waiting room: Vicki Nelson, whose wife, Barb, is being seen by Magaña. Nelson wears a pink tank top and shorts and has short gray hair and an athletic physique. Both Vicki and Barb are retired — from the Air Force’s civilian service and Hewlett Packard, respectively — but even with insurance, it’s more affordable to stay at a hotel in Yuma and pay for optical and dental services in Los Algodones.
“I got an eye exam here for $10 and only paid $160 for glasses,” Vicki says. “In the U.S. it costs over $300.”
This is the couple’s fifth trip to Los Algodones. Barb received 13 fillings, several crowns, and a root canal from another dentist, and has been in pain since. The maid at their hotel room told them the local drug cartel has its hands in everything, even in Los Algodones, so they refrain from giving that dentist’s name.
“We hope everything works out,” Vicki says. “Her mouth never hurt before. But I don’t want to cast a bad light on the whole place.”