I ran from a dentist’s chair last week. If you’re horrified by the thought of seeing a dentist in Mexico, this might confirm your fears. But let me share what happened, while I dip into dentistry in the land of tacos and tequila.

Every year, thousands of Americans flock to Mexico for low-cost dental work. I chose Dental Express, a clinic near Mexico’s Lake Chapala. Sometimes, people fly in for fillings, crowns, root canals and implants. But most of their American patients live in Mexico.

That’s where dental work costs 70 to 90 percent less than it does in the United States. I’ve had my teeth cleaned in Mexico for just $10. I’ve had a cavity filled for $40. I chose my clinics based on personal recommendations and reviews that I read on the Chapala.com web-board. The clinic that I ran from has a good reputation. One customer wrote:

I had a 3-tooth bridge… Perfectly satisfied! [It cost] 14,700 pesos ($800 US). My [American] dentist wanted $4,000. On appropriate procedures, like my bridge [the dentist] uses the latest CAD/CAM equipment to design and actually make the ‘tooth/bridge’ in his office computer.”

I visited this clinic seven weeks ago. The Dental Express website says they use “the latest dental technology and cutting-edge techniques.” After the dentist cleaned my teeth, he pulled his iPhone out. No, he wasn’t checking his social media feeds. Instead, he placed the phone in my mouth (my parents always said it was big) and photographed one of my molars. I wondered what Steve Jobs would have thought about this.

Andrew Hallam at Dental Express
Andrew Hallam at Dental Express: Photo courtesy of Pele Hallam-Young

“This tooth needs a crown,” he said, while he showed me the image on his spider-web-cracked screen.

“I’ll be leaving for Southeast Asia in a couple of days,” I said. “Can I get the work done when I come back in six weeks?”

I scheduled my next appointment, and six weeks later, I came back to the clinic. While I lay in the chair, the dentist looked at notes he had written the month before. “So… you already have two crowns,” he said, in perfect English.

This made me nervous. “I don’t have any crowns,” I said. “I thought I was coming here for a crown.”

“Oh actually, you need two crowns,” he said, “and a small filling.” In fairness, he probably said the same thing during my first visit. But dentists scare me. Such trauma, perhaps, might have messed my memory. In my mind, I just needed one crown, and I didn’t need a filling.

Then I began to worry. What if he was reading notes about some other guy’s teeth? In that case, he might start drilling a perfectly healthy tooth. My once-buried fears of Mexican dentists started to resurface. That’s why I needed to escape. “I don’t want any dental work done,” I whimpered, as I bolted from the chair.

Thousands of Americans have much more courage. They cross the border every year in search of low-cost dental work. One popular location is Nuevo Progreso, about a 4-hour drive from San Antonio, Texas. It has more than 300 dental clinics.

Map to Neuvo Progresso from San Antonio
Source: Google Maps

Not everyone flees from their dental chairs. I asked Janice Dyment, a 62 year-old Canadian from the province of Alberta. She recently had 7 crowns and 2 root canals done at a clinic in Ajijic, a town near Lake Chapala. “As soon as the dentist said ‘crowns’ I didn’t think I would be able to afford it,” she said. “But I had all of the work done for about $2,900.” In Canada, it would have cost at least $14,000.

In 2017, CBC Calgary’s Judy Aldous interviewed Dr. Basahti. He’s Alberta’s Dental Association and College Council president. Listeners asked him questions. One listener asked about the quality of dental work in lower-cost countries such as Mexico.

“I have yet to see really good work come out of other jurisdictions like that — especially Mexico,” he said. “At the end of the day, do citizens want to have high quality care that they can count on? The amount of work we've seen where patients have atrocious infections, implants that are failing … it may be cheaper there, but…”

I asked Javier Abud what he thought. He worked as a Mexican diplomat in Loredo, Texas; Anchorage, Alaska and Indianapolis, Indiana. He also represented Mexico in Holland and Malaysia– where he worked for several years. “In my opinion, the level of professionalism for dentists in Mexico isn’t as high as it is in the United States,” he says.

ABC Arizona’s Alexa Liacko referenced comments from Dr. Kevin Earle of the Arizona Dental Association. He said there are good dental clinics in Mexico, but people need to do their research.

That’s what Janice Dyment did before getting 7 new crowns and 2 root canals. After getting the work done, she went back to Canada and asked her Canadian dentist to inspect her Mexican dentist’s work. She recalls his surprise: “He said it was incredible. He couldn’t believe I had this work done in Mexico. He was so impressed.”

I’ve also been to dentists in several lower-cost countries. Dental standards and regulations in Canada and the United States tend to be more consistent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get world-class treatment in Mexico or Thailand. You just need to do more research, or risk stumbling into sub-standard work.

Dental Departures is a good place to start. It lists the dentists' certifications and each clinic's contact information. However, if you’re trusting your teeth to an out-of-country dentist, it’s best to learn more.

I prefer asking long-time expats, instead of dental tourists that breeze in for work. After all, if problems arise with a specific dental clinic, word quickly spreads among the resident expatriates. That’s why I asked American retirees when I first sought a dentist in Lake Chapala, four years ago. I wanted to find the region’s best dental clinic, and I didn’t care about price. Several recommended Dr. Hector Haro. He was certified at the University of Maryland, so I decided to check him out.

Fortunately, the clinic looked spectacular. They took photographs of my teeth with state-of-the art equipment. There wasn’t an iPhone in sight. It cost $40 for a cleaning and a couple of x-rays. You might wonder why I trusted my teeth to a different dentist this year. I wondered that too.

I went back to Dr. Haro’s office one week after my cowardly departure at Dental Express. They cleaned and inspected my teeth. They had photos of my teeth that they took 4 years before with their wand-like dental camera. They took new photos and compared them both. Then they followed up with another state-of-the art, light-radiation x-ray. They didn’t think I needed crowns. But they wanted to be sure.

After the examination, the dentist identified the same molars as the guy at Dental Express. They looked the same as they did four years ago, so she didn’t recommend extra work. “But we’ll keep an eye on those,” she said.

If I need work in the future, I know where to go.

I believe you can find world-class dentistry in Mexico. But the range in quality, from clinic to clinic, might be broader than you think, so you need to do your homework. Nobody wants a botched job, nor the embarrassment of running from a dentist’s chair.

Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas