Sometimes you just don't see it coming.
Living in Merida, Mexico, at the time, we were dashing around the house and packing for an early flight when a tall American forehead met a low Spanish Colonial doorway, and a top front tooth snapped cleanly in half.
Once we returned from the trip, we called our dentist and got an appointment immediately. In three visits, he cast a color-matched cap for the tooth, ground a post from the remaining half of the real tooth, and fit the new cap perfectly. It was as if nothing had ever happened.
In the States we estimate that we'd have paid anywhere from $600 to $1,500 for the same work, depending on the type, location and material of the cap or crown. Our dentist in Mexico charged less than $300. Even though it wasn't a large amount, we didn't have that much cash on us.
"That's fine," he said, "bring it in when you get it."
That's dental care in Mérida, Mexico, and throughout most of the rest of Latin America where we've visited and lived. In at least five Latin American cities or towns, we've had fillings, root canals, cleanings...
And the story is always the same... great quality work at half the cost or less of the same work in the U.S.
There are some local peculiarities, but for the most part, dental care from a qualified professional in any large metropolitan center in Latin America isn't much different from in the States -- except for the price. Some doctors practice out of private offices in a converted part of their own homes. Others practice in larger specialized clinics or have offices in major medical centers.
Naturally, the higher the overhead, the more expensive the care, so you'll pay a premium for those fancy new offices and equipment. But on average, a visit to the office for a check-up runs $50. Cleanings cost about the same (except in Ecuador where we now live and where we pay $30), and basic fillings average $70 or $80. More serious procedures vary in price depending on the individual situation, but implants, bridges and crowns are significantly less expensive than in the U.S.
Most dental work in our experience is paid for in cash. It is then up to the patient to make any insurance claims for reimbursement. But does anyone have dental insurance these days, we wonder?
Price is one thing, quality is another, and throughout Latin America it doesn't take much research among locals and the local expat community to find highly recommended dentists... even, often, those who have trained in the U.S. and speak English.
There is also no shortage of state-of-the-art equipment in Latin American medical and dental offices, but it can take some comparison-shopping to find the right combination of location, office layout, training and equipment.
It's very possible to spend next to nothing to have dental work done in a doctor's converted front-room office with 20-year-old equipment while speaking nothing but Spanish. It's just as possible to sit in a sparkling clinic with the most modern equipment and converse with your doctor in perfect English... for which you'll pay a little more, of course.
But regardless of the equipment, surroundings or language skills, one thing you will find with most dentists throughout Latin America is an abundance of personal care and dedicated customer service.
Appointments can often be made immediately or just days in advance, and if a price is agreed upon in advance for a procedure that then requires more time and work than anticipated, the price will most likely not change.
And your dentist will also most likely give you his personal cell phone number in case you have any questions or discomfort after a procedure -- and he or she will actually answer the phone when you call, no matter the time of day or night.
If you're one of the more than 100 million Americans who lack dental insurance, then you should know: Costs for high-quality dental procedures abroad can be so low that you could easily combine a vacation (including airfare and hotel) with your care and still pay less than you would for the dental procedures alone in the States.
These days the Internet is full of medical tourism outfits that will match your health needs with a desired location and an itinerary of tours and services. Shop around, do your research, exercise all the due diligence that you would when researching any other service on the Internet.
You may well be able to get those old filings removed and those caps replaced while staying at a historic hacienda or recuperating in a hammock on the beach.