Last year, just a couple of weeks after returning home from a fantastic honeymoon in Costa Rica, I got on a plane again and flew back to the small Central American country. No, I wasn’t going back to Costa Rica because I missed the surf or needed another few rounds of Monkey Business. I was going back to get my teeth fixed.

Cursed with a childhood addiction to candy, weak dental genes, a lack of dental insurance, and a non-trivial dose of benign neglect, I had walked myself, at the age of 35, into a box canyon of poor dental health. Two of my molars, riddled with fillings from when I was a poor kid, had fallen apart, cascading their decay over into neighboring teeth. My smile was unaffected, but behind the scenes it was getting bad.

Before I left on my honeymoon, I was somewhat familiar with dental tourism, and knew that Costa Rica had a good reputation in that field. I did a lot of research into different dentists' practices and found scores of U.S.-trained dentists operating state-of-the-art facilities with prices that can be a third of what you’d pay in the States.

After doing a lot of reading, I settled on working with Meza Dental Care in the capital city of San Jose. I liked that Dr. Alberto Meza, the principle dentist in the practice, had trained at UCLA and I found a lot of satisfied patient testimonials around the Internet.

I made my first visit to the modern, comfortable clinic while on honeymoon for a consultation. After X-rays and an examination, I was quoted a price that was 25 percent of the price I was given by my American dentist. It was still a hefty hit to the wallet, but it wasn't bank-breaking.

Two weeks after returning from my honeymoon, I was back on a plane flying south to get my work done at Meza Dental.

I had four days of visits scheduled into 10 days in the country. The first two days were to be spent doing the major work — drilling out the decay and making room for the new crowns I needed. The last two days of work, which coincided with my last two days in Costa Rica, were spent installing and adjusting new crowns. In between those dental bookends, I had a little less than a week of time to myself.

And therein lies the appeal of dental tourism. The thinking is — if you’re going to go somewhere nice and warm on vacation, scheduling in a few days at the dentist is worth the thousands of dollars in savings. The flip side of that is if you’re going to fly somewhere to save a lot of money on dental work, you might as well take a nice vacation while you’re at it. It works from both ways.

My first two days in the chair were grueling, but mostly pain-free. The dentist and technicians who worked on my teeth were quick and precise. They noticed every slight cringe and knew just how to react to eliminate or prevent pain, usually with another well-placed shot of numbing agent. I felt like I was in good hands.

I opted for oral sedation on my first day (you are given a mild anti-anxiety pill) but switched over to nitrous oxide on my second. The nitrous was much more effective. Here’s a shot I took of myself in full nitrous swing.

Under nitrous while getting dental work done at Meza Dental Care in Costa Rica

Mind you, that picture was taken in the midst of getting six root canals in one day. All was extremely well with the universe when I took this photo.

I was concerned about the pain I would feel after 13 hours in the chair and even considered traveling to Costa Rica with some stronger pain killers prescribed by my doctor. Thankfully my fears were unfounded, and I woke up the morning after getting the root canals with no swelling or pain.

I checked out of the Grano de Oro, a wonderful hotel where I stayed when I was in San Jose, and headed into the mountains to spend some time at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens & Peace Lodge. I did a lot of reading at Peace Lodge and got caught up on work.

Candy colored sky in Costa Rica

Sunset at Peace Lodge. (Photo: Shea Gunther)

Soon enough I was back in San Jose for my last two days of dental work. The second part of my visit was much easier than the first. First I would have crowns installed and then come back the next day for adjustments. Both days went off without a hitch. When I walked out of Meza Dental for the last time, I had a new set of choppers that felt better than new. Anyone who’s had braces (and then had them taken off) knows that magical feeling of running your tongue over newly smooth teeth. That smoothness.

Dental tourism certainly isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of additional costs associated with flying to a far-flung country to get your teeth fixed. You’ll likely add thousands of dollars to your total bill paying for transportation, food, lodging, and all the other little costs that pop up when you’re traveling. In order for a dental vacation to make sense in strict financial terms, your projected savings need to at least match those added costs. You won’t be flying to Costa Rica to just get a tooth pulled. But if you need a handful of root canals and crowns, it might be a good fit.

Of course, one of the draws of dental tourism is the added value of being able to visit a wonderful tropical country in between sessions with the dentist. The beaches are just a few hours from San Jose, where most dental clinics catering to North Americans are clustered, and the mountainous rain forests are about the same distance.

If you are considering dental tourism yourself, make sure you do your research. I am very happy with the work Meza Dental did, but you should spend time researching all your options (the AARP has a good article with helpful resources and Medigo is a site that maintains a list of recomended providers and tracks your interactions with them). You want a dentist with a good educational background (look for schooling in prominent U.S. schools) and good reviews and testimonials. Don’t just rely on the patient endorsements found on a dental clinic’s website. A good Google search can turn up a lot on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Another thing to consider with getting dental work done in a country like Costa Rica is what happens if anything goes wrong after you get home. Any reputable clinic offers warranties covering problems with their work, but they require that you to revisit their offices to honor the warranty. This means if you crack your crown a month after you get home, you would need to fly back to get it fixed under warranty.

There are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about taking your own dental vacation, so just make sure to put in enough research time to be a knowledgeable patient. And if you end up in the dentist’s chair at Meza Dental Care, tell them I said hello.

As they say in Costa Rica, pura vida!

Want to read more about Costa Rica? Check out these stories here on MNN:

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