Shopping in Algodones, Mexico for Dental, Glasses and Prescription Drugs
One question every vandweller has to face is what will he/she do about health insurance. And to be honest, that is a question I have struggled with myself and havent found an answer to. I was a union clerk for over 30 years and had been told that I would get free health insurance for life when I retired. Then a few years before I retired they said the insurance rates had gone increased so much they had to start charging. Every year I would get a letter telling me the monthly rate for insurance was going up. When I finally retired my “free” insurance was going to cost me $600 a month! I couldn’t possibly afford that so I declined to take it. I looked into private insurance and couldn’t find any I could afford so I simply did without. I am basically healthy so I didn’t really miss it. But I have high blood pressure and I take prescription drugs every month to control it. So I had to pay for that myself. Then I needed a yearly exam to get my drugs renewed. And of course I need dental care every year. And it seems as I get older I need more involved and expensive dental work. While I had perfect eye site all my life, once I hit my mid 40s I had to start wearing glasses, and I needed a new exam and glasses every year.
The combined cost of a yearly doctors exam, the high blood pressure medications, dental work and eye exam and glasses were taking a huge toll on my budget! I was going to have to get a job just to pay for them all. Then a friend told me about a little town just across the Mexican border called Algodones where I could go and get all those things for pennies on the dollar.
My first thought was that I was uncomfortable traveling in Mexico. I knew intellectually that the media only told the splashy criminal stories and that most people traveled safely there, but none the less I was afraid to travel in Mexico. My friend assured me that Algodones was a sleepy little border town that was kept extremely safe so that Americans could go there and spend their money in total safety. I was a little nervous but I simply could not afford to keep paying the exorbitant prices I was paying for dental, glasses or drugs, so I decided to give it a try.
I am so glad I did!! My friend was entirely right, I am as safe in Algodones as I am anywhere in America, and the prices are incredible. My first year I went to a dentist in Nevada and got X-rays, and exam, and an estimate of the cost to fix my teeth. His price was going to be $2500. I didn’t have that much money so I had no choice but to go to Mexico. All that work only cost me $600 in Mexico and I was very satisfied with it. While I was there I got a new pair of glasses for $80 including the exam! The last exam I had in the U.S. cost me $65 at Sams Club. So the glasses only cost me another $15, and that included bi-focal and progressive (they turn dark in sunlight)! While I was there I bought a years supply of high blood pressure medication for the same price I would have paid for two months supply at home. And I avoided paying a Doctor $250 to tell me I was fine and write a prescription for new meds (I monitor it on my on with my own blood pressure cuff).
One more thing, I know many people with health insurance who go to Mexico for their dental, glasses and prescription drugs because what they pay for it there is less than their co-pay even though they have insurance. It is very common to be able to buy drugs or glasses there for much less than you would pay in the U.S. for your deductible and co-pay alone.
I was sold, and from then on I have returned every year to get all those things done. My every experience has been positive. The dental care was fast, clean and safe, my blood pressure has remained under control and I can see clearly now! As I am writing this I am camping on BLM land just 6 miles from Algodones. I have already made three trips there in the last week and have new glasses, a years supply of meds and clean teeth. Algodones is just outside of Yuma, AZ so it is scheduled into my calender every year that sometime in the winter I will be camping near Yuma to go to Algodones. There is plenty of BLM land to camp on for free and Yuma is a large town with everything you could need. As a bonus, Yuma is the warmest place in Arizona in the winter so it is always 6-10 degrees warmer than the rest of the desert when it is cold. This year there are 12 other people camping with me and 4 of them went across the border and they all had very good experiences as well.
Having gone there a dozen times in the last 4 years I have learned a few things that make going across easier. Here they are:
- There is a large parking lot a 2 minute walk away from the border. The very best way to go is to park and walk across. Everything you need is in a 4 square block area right beside the border crossing so car is just a hassle, much better to just walk. It costs $5 to park for the day in a fenced, patrolled lot.
- It is very easy to enter Mexico, but you must have a Passport to bet back into America. If you don’t have a Passport, they will also accept a Drivers License and a Birth Certificate. In my opinion, every vandweller should have all those things with him.
- It is extremely safe! There is a heavy Mexican Police presence and I have never seen or heard of any kind of crime there. Old, “rich” Americans are the goose that laid the golden egg and they want to take very good care of us. Without exception all my trips across the border have been very pleasant! Many people go across just for lunch and I haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from it either (although most won’t drink the water).
- Because of the huge number of Snowbirds (RVers who go south in the winter) in Yuma, there are many Americans who cross over the border every day. The problem is they all try to come back at the same time after lunch. The result is there are generally very long lines every afternoon of people waiting to get back into the U.S. One time I stood in line for 2 hours trying to get back across and 45 minutes is very common. The way to avoid the line is to go in early and leave before noon. Doing that I have never waited in line for more than 10 minutes. They are very fast at making glasses, they should be done in 2 hours. But rather than wait and end up standing in a long line, I order them one day, and pick them up the next morning. In the same way, they are very fast at making crowns, they may well be done the same day, but to avoid the lines I get the work done in the morning and come back the next day to get the crown put on.
- You don’t need a prescription to buy drugs in Mexico. You just walk up to the counter and tell the clerk the name of the drug and the size you want and they hand it to you. I always shop at the Purple Pharmacy. The clerks there are very knowledgeable, generally speak fluent English and are very helpful. For example, they were out of the size I wanted in something and the clerk ran just down the street to another branch of the store and found it and came back with it. Highly recommended! As soon as you cross the border you will know which ones to go to because the buildings are painted a bright Purple. My first year I checked prices and they were just as cheap as anyone else and on a few things they were cheaper.
- You are only allowed to buy a 3 months supply of prescription drugs during any trip, so I need to make multiple trips to get a years supply. Also, you are only allowed to buy for your own personal use. One year I brought back a big bag of drugs for myself, my mom and sister. The INS agent saw that big bag and asked me if they were all for my own use and I said no, they were for my family and myself. He told me that was NOT allowed, but he would let me do it this one time. He could have refused and made me return them, but he didn’t. So I have never done that again.
- Something I always buy while I am there is a bottle of Amoxocyillin, a very good, broad-spectrum antibiotic. In the U.S. you would need an a prescription but not in Mexico. I keep it on hand in case I (or Homer) get an infection while I am in the back-country. It costs $5 for a bottle of 100. Another thing I always have on hand is a Penicillin Salve that comes in a little vial and is applied topically to the skin. On several occasions I have started to get an infection on a cut and rubbed some if it on it and it worked like magic! The swelling and redness disappeared almost instantly. Homer got a bad cut once and I started applying this stuff and a few days later I went to apply it and there was no sign of his ever having a cut. It costs $3.50 for a bottle that lasts me several years. Highly recommended!
- Most businesses in Algodones will not take credit cards, but a few will. So your best bet is to bring cash. Also, many times prices are negotiable. The first time I bought glasses they were going to take too long to get to my eye exam so I went to the store literally next door. He was going to charge me $20 less and I only had to wait a few minutes. When I went outside to wait for the exam, the guy from next door asked me how much and I told him and he offered to match the price and get me in for the exam right then. So I did that. All that goes to show that if you are paying cash, and are willing to walk away, you can save yourself some money. The guy who did the exam did such a good job that I have been back to him 4 times since then and my glasses are always perfect!
- All over Algodones there are small vendors selling jewelry, leather goods, sunglasses, clothes, hat and just about anything you can imagine in a tourist trap. Negotiating is completely normal. If they want $25, offer him $10. Chances are there many other vendors selling the exact same product so if they won’t negotiate, just go to the next one and maybe he will. Maybe you will end up paying $15, but that will still be a good deal.
When you are on the limited budget many of us are, it is easy to cut corners on taking care of your health. For that reason I am so glad I have discovered Algodones and want to encourage you to give it a try. If you live far away, then maybe this is a reason you should move to the Southwest. There is a huge amount of free public land to live on and if you are willing to move with the seasons you can stay reasonably comfortable year around. Best of all there is an abundance of like-minded people out here and making life-long friends out of other vandwellers is very easy.
All in all, it is a wonderful life!!