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Discount Dentistry, South of The Border

Judy Salvador dances with a pharmacy mascot as she shops for dental care in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where dozens of clinics compete for American business.
Judy Salvador dances with a pharmacy mascot as she shops for dental care in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where dozens of clinics compete for American business. (Photos By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)

For patients arriving by plane, Ciudad Juarez dentists offer airport pick-ups.

Salvador, who doesn't speak Spanish, made an appointment with Rio Dental, where 99 percent of patients come from the United States. A van picked her up at the El Paso airport, and she got a $50-a-night dental patient hotel rate.

Salvador had already been in the chair at Rio Dental for nearly two hours one recent morning when the office's van pulled up in El Paso to collect more patients.

A weary couple, pulling rolling suitcases, waved. Charles and Gloria Hunt piled into the van. After flying from Orlando, they'd had to stay overnight in Atlanta because bad weather canceled their connecting flight. The Hunts had reserved tickets to Hungary for dental work, but a friend told them Ciudad Juarez was better. Driver Silvia González, with her frosted hair and designer sunglasses, steered the van toward the border checkpoint.

"We need our passports here, right?" Gloria Hunt asked, shuffling papers.

"No," said Joseph Andel, an American who manages Rio Dental while his Mexican wife, Jessica Andel, does the dental work.

Like many who come here, the Hunts hadn't seen a dentist in years and planned to get major work done -- including nine crowns for Gloria and a partial denture for Charles, all for about $4,000, or one-fourth what they would have paid in Florida. The savings, they figured, was enough to justify spending $399 each on airline tickets.

"When did Doc George retire?" Gloria Hunt asked, referring to her last dentist.

"Oh, at least 10 years ago," said Charles Hunt, 59, a self-employed accountant.

Friends in Florida think the Hunts are crazy.

"Mexico!" Gloria Hunt remembers one pal saying. "You can't even drink the water down there."

At Rio Dental, a greeter stashed their bags. While some of Juarez's dental offices are dingy, the Hunts found themselves in a bright waiting room tastefully decorated in glass brick. Time and People magazines lay on coffee tables, and an easy-listening version of "Makin' Whoopee" poured out from a stereo.


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