Getting your tooth pulled or having oral surgery while on vacation is something that you may have not ever thought about. But with increased costs of quality healthcare, more Americans are traveling abroad for dental tourism. In the past few months, I needed some very expensive dental procedures, which sent me researching for the best places in the world for dental work.
After looking at Croatia (best quality) and Mexico (cheapest), I settled on Costa Rica. I spoke to several friends from the U.S. who had traveled to Costa Rica for dental tourism about the experiences they had. They gave me referrals to dental groups in the capital of San Jose, and I consulted with the dentists virtually.
Read my piece on Costa Rica in TIME Magazine
Dental tourism has become commonplace lately, though not everyone is comfortable with the idea, or knows how to navigate the process. Here are some personal accounts and tips so you will know what to expect while on dental tourism in Costa Rica.
Why Go Abroad for Dental?
There are several advantages to getting your dental procedures done outside the U.S. The first and most obvious one is – cost. Dentists in the U.S. charge three times those in Costa Rica, and five times those in Croatia. Moreover, the best dental insurance is usually capped at $2,000 per person annually. This means if you have healthy teeth and require nothing more than twice a year cleaning, check up, x-rays and an occasional filling, the rest of the charges will come out of your own pocket. In my case, I needed 2 implants and 5 crowns, which would have costed over $20,000 in Atlanta. That’s the price of a new car!
When you go to a dentist in Costa Rica, they also help you file your dental insurance claim, so you can still your U.S. insurance money towards a more affordable treatment.
Secondly, the dental clinics in Costa Rica are set up in a way that all the specialists are located in one physical office. This means, you don’t have to run across different parts of town to meet with endodontics, oral surgeons, general dentistry, lab folks, etc. There are 12 kinds of dental specialists and I have been to practically all of them at some point! In my experience, the hassle of obtaining referrals, scheduling appointments, driving, waiting and transferring results (that are never actually discussed between the different specialists), causes intensified toothache.
Thirdly, the level of care and attention you get abroad is far superior to that in the U.S. When I visit my general dentist at home, she sees me for hardly 2 minutes, if at all. It is usually the assistants who do the initial consultation with the patient and reports to the dentist. But in Costa Rica, my dentist spent 3 whole hours with me on my first consultative day. He took 3D scans and x-rays, brought in his counterparts, discussed all possible options, and wrote out a plan for the next 6 months. The staff was not rushing out to see their next patient. During each visit, they always waited for me to think of questions, feel my bite, and be comfortable before walking out of the office.
Cost vs Benefit
Yes there are additional costs involved in traveling abroad. You need to pay for flights, hotel room, food, sightseeing, etc. My dental office in Costa Rica partnered with local hotels and apart-hotels (with kitchens), offering discounted price to their patients. They also provided free airport transfers and a private car with driver for daily transport to and from the clinic. All in all, even after accounting for the travel expenses, my dental procedures came out to be less than what I would have spent at home. And I honestly enjoyed not having to drive myself back home after having surgery.
Before making a decision to travel abroad for dental tourism, you will need to consider your personal situation. How much work do you need to have done? Can you combine several pending procedures in 1-2 visits, that justify the additional travel expense?
How Long Do Dental Implants Take
For implants, you would need to travel to Costa Rica twice. Your first trip should last about 5 business days where you will have consultation, surgery and placing of the implants. After 6 months, you will need to go back for implant reveal and permanent teeth replacement. Though the procedure is less invasive during the second visit, you will need to be in the country for around 10 days, allowing a few free days in between for lab work.
The dentists in Atlanta do extraction and implant surgery only under general anesthesia, but the ones in Costa Rica do not recommend this unless you really want it. This makes recovery time faster and less painful. I had no pain during my hour long implant surgery and the only discomfort was from the medications (anti inflammation, antibiotics).
What About Travel and Recovery?
Some people are concerned about being far from the comforts of home, while they may be undergoing pain and discomfort. You may not have your friends or family members to check in on while you are experiencing dental tourism in Costa Rica. The grocery stores abroad may not have your favorite soups or ice cream flavors. And language may also be a barrier. But, not having to clean your room or do your dishes is also nice.
I did take these points into consideration when booking my trip to Costa Rica and planned my two visits in a certain way, that I had the right environment and food to recover.
Find a Really Good Dental Clinic
After consulting with a couple of dentists in Costa Rica, I decided to go with Goodness Dental. Their customer service was spot on right from the start. The patient coordinator, Dr. Carlos Fiorito called me back right away and even answered calls on Sundays. He answered all my questions regarding materials, equipment, insurance paperwork, accommodations, timeline, etc. He looked at my reports via emails and assured me that the experts at the clinic would provide the best possible health plan.
The clinic was located away from downtown San Jose, in a more upscale residential area. It was very clean, the equipment was modern and the staff friendly.
Each day, the receptionist would send me a text via WhatsApp to remind me of my appointment time and send a driver to pick me up from the hotel. Before I entered the clinic, I was asked to wash my hands and wear a face mask. My temperature was also checked daily.
In the lobby, 99% of the patients were young and old Americans and Canadians. We all shared stories about why we came to Costa Rica, what to expect post surgery, and travel tips around the country. The office provided free WiFi, soft drinks, made to order cappuccino and even ice cream! Medications and ice packs were delivered right to the office, so you didn’t even have to stop by the pharmacy.
Stay at a Peaceful Place
Though San Jose is a busy city, there are residential neighborhoods that are very quiet and scenic. I stayed at boutique Hotel Alta Las Palomas, nestled in the hills of Santa Ana. The spacious corner suite had a separate living room, master bedroom, bathroom, walk in closet, and a balcony with a stunning view. Because of its elevated location, the area is much cooler than the rest of Costa Rica. I visited in December and July. During both months, it was pleasant to sit outside any time of the day, while listening to tropical birds chirping.
There were lots of cozy spaces around the hotel to sit and read – including a library, garden with water feature and swimming pool surrounded by mango trees. The Spanish style architecture and photographs of coffee farmers are also worth checking out.
The food at Hotel Alta was some of the best I had in Costa Rica. Their award-winning restaurant – La Luz, served a huge a la carte breakfast (included with stay) of fresh fruits, juice, coffee, and entree. My favorite was the typico with scrambled eggs, rice, beans, plantains and tacos. They accommodated my dietary requests with a friendly smile (for the days I was on soft foods). My schedule included eating a hearty breakfast overlooking the gardens and valley. Then I was driven to the dental clinic, where I spent a few hours. In the afternoon, I rested and read, and in the evening, I went out for a stroll and dinner.
Relax Near The City
During my first dental visit to Costa Rica, I had implant surgery and needed to rest. So, I did not plan for any big exertions for a few days. Toward the end of the week, I walked through Refugio Animal de Costa Rica, a wildlife sanctuary, located next door to Hotel Alta. There, I enjoyed learning about Costa Rica’s native capuchin monkeys, toucans and crocodiles. Those cute faces make you smile!
Nearby, I visited Multiplex (largest mall in central America), and the urban mixed use Avenida Escazú, with upscale restaurants, cinema and a park. In San Jose, I took a guided walking tour of the city, to explore the many markets, French neighborhoods, Spanish squares and architectural sites. In my downtown, I learned about the country’s history, economy and food culture.
For a fun day trip, visit Poás volcano, Peace lodge garden and la Paz waterfall, and Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee in the Central Valley. This is a beautiful area of Costa Rica located only an hour from the city. You can book a private car with guide and driver directly through the hotel.
Take a Break in Costa Rica
If you are comfortable driving in Costa Rica, rent a car through locally owned and operated, Adobe Rent a Car. Driving allows you the flexibility of exploring the countryside and stopping at local highway restaurants, known as sodas. They have the largest fleet of car rentals in Costa Rica at very affordable prices. Their friendly representative delivered an automatic four-wheel drive to me, right at my hotel and picked it up too. The car was clean, serviced, and all the paperwork (including insurance coverage) well accounted for.
During the lab waiting period (around 4-5 days), we drove from San Jose to Nosara for a beach and jungle getaway. Located in the northwest part of the country, in the Blue Zone, Nosara has recently emerged as an expat destination. You will find million dollar homes, yoga studios, international restaurants, as well as local beaches and rustic jungles. More on that in my next post.
If you would like to experience dental tourism in Costa Rica, Go Eat Give can arrange your trip. Feel free to reach out to me: info at goeatgive dot com.
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