How I got beautiful teeth in stunning Costa Rica and saved thousands of dollars on dental work
By Ron Laytner
I was sitting in a plush leather operating chair in the office of a wealthy Florida dentist, his waiting room filled with anxious patients, reception manned by three women working phones and billing.
In came the dentist, gray-haired, impeccably dressed, Gucci shoes and shirt, French tie matching his convertible Mercedes outside. He opened his hands wide flashed a gold Rolex, gave a little bow and with a hunterās smile, asked āHow can I help you?ā
I didnāt know it yet but he would set me off on a journey of thousands of miles that would bring me to rain forests and volcanoes.
Iāve been a globe-trotting foreign correspondent for decades. Iād lost a tooth here and a tooth there. I remembered a dentist in a Mexican village, pumping his foot up and down on an old sewing-machine-like treadle, powering a slow drill cutting agonizingly into a now long-lost tooth. A molar had disappeared in Cairo to an Egyptian wearing a wine-red fez.
I realized now in Florida the years had taken their toll. I needed a lot of work.
For the next hour and a half the US dentist took x-rays and went over all the work I needed. Finally, with the help of an assistant, he began tallying up the cost on a large calculator with big bright green numbers. The total came to an unbelievable $24,000.
My wife and I were aghast.
Ā I said weād think it over but could he please help me first with the pain in my tooth ā the reason Iād come in the first place? Could I have a temporary filling so I wouldnāt be in pain all weekend?
He checked his Rolex, frowned and said sorry, there was no time. He wanted $24,000 up front ā this job was too big for payments. And yet he wouldnāt take the time to stop my pain? I decided to look elsewhere ā maybe a foreign country and I would use the magic of the internet.
Iād heard somewhere that dentists were very inexpensive and good in Costa Rica, modern Mexico and South Africa. I had bad memories of Mexican dentists. South Africa was too far away. Iād try Costa Rica.
Using the internet search engine www.google.com, I put in the key words, āimplants and āCosta Ricaā.
In a one-sixth of a second search the internet revealed that: ācosmetic/restorative dentistry is a major industry in the small Central American country, that each year thousands of men and women visit San Jose, the capital, taking advantage of the low-cost, high-quality care provided by Costa Ricaās cosmetic surgeons and dentists, that more than 14 percent of all visitors to Costa Rica come there for some kind of medical careā.
Featured prominently was someone known as Dr. Mario Garita, a āworld-renowned expert in implantsā and reconstructive dental surgery'. It said he was trained at the University of Miami. Sounded good, but was the internet telling the truth?
I spoke to Garita on his cell phone. In perfect English he told me to send my x-rays and heād get back to me with a price.
Was he really as good as he said?
My tooth was still hurting and I went to a specialist in Fort Lauderdale who stopped the pain for one thousand dollars. He warned me not to go to Costa Rica, that Iād end up with a mouthful of bad work. He told me heād check Garita out but never did.
I bought two affordable round-trip tickets on Taca Airlines from Miami to Costa Rica and set out with my wife into the unknown world of foreign dentistry.
Dr. Garita arranged for us to stay at a small inn with a beautiful name, Casa Del La Mariposa, The House of Butterflies.
It was in a section of good homes, in Eskazu, all closely barred for privacy.Soon we drove into the the quiet grounds of Villa Del La Mariposa.
A maid welcomed us in and showed us to our rooms. We sat in the dining room and enjoyed a cold drink and fresh fruit.
Soon Mercedes Castro, owner of the eight room guesthouse arrived. She said,āWhy stay in a regular hotel with other guests gawking at bandages when you can recover among other patients discussing their procedures and healing more quickly?ā
She also noted that at one time dental work and plastic surgery in Costa Rica was usually performed on women for the sake of beauty and youth.
Now, she said, it's mostly done on men who are fighting younger competitors seeking their jobs. "Everyone is striving to look younger," she said.
Back in time
The first time I met Mario Garita his offices were in a small security-barred and gated building on a busy street and we had climbed to the second floor.
There was only one girl at the desk and just one person in the waiting room, Walter Ferrari, an American from Texas. While I waited for Dr. Garita to arrive I questioned him carefully. His wife Daisy had been here before and had eleven implants at a ridiculously low price. He smiled and showed me his own movie star mouth shaped in San Jose and told me Iād just love Dr. Garita.
Garita was an implant specialist; his wife a cosmetic dentist, his father, a pioneer root canal specialist in Central America and a younger brother an orthodontist.
When he arrived Dr. Garita flashed a dazzling smile to my wife and took us into his office. We sat under a wall of diplomas showing heād indeed graduated from the University of Miami Medical Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital specializing in implant surgery and oral reconstruction.
His operating room contained exactly the same modern tech expensive equipment used by the āRolex watchā dentist in Florida. Garita, after taking his own high tech digital x-rays began work on me right away.
He started by making impressions of what teeth I still had, then went confidently through my mouth like a landscaper clearing a field, removing my failing crowns and bridges and going after tooth decay. Then he put in temporary teeth. Dr. Garita was totally relaxed and supremely confident. We came to his office for three days in a row then he told us to take a holiday in Costa Rica and come back in three more days.
We hired a driver and van for $75 US per day
We hired a driver and van for $75 US per day who took us across the country 100 miles away on the adventurous road to Arenal Volcano. We sat back and relaxed as he dealt with winding mountain curves and soaring straight-aways past coffee plantations in the breath-taking countryside for which Costa Rica is famous.
On this rare day huge active Arenal volcano, which is usually covered by steam and clouds, could be clearly seen.
At its bottom was the famed Tabicon hot springs; twelve pools and several waterfalls, supplied by millions of gallons of rushing water heated by the volcano.
We joined hundreds of visitors from every country including the United States in rain forest-surrounded hot pools and waterfalls. As we soaked in the steaming waters, years of tension melted away.
We left at dusk and began the scary drive up to our hotel, The famous Arenal Lodge. Just getting there was an adventure. The road was partially paved and snaked almost straight up to the top of a mountain.
We were taken to a posh room straight out of an adventure movie in Africa. A manager arrived and gently cleared out a trapped hummingbird. Then we leaned over our balcony and marveled at the rain forest leading up to the high volcano spewing red lava a mile or so away.
We had a romantic dinner and annoyed a family of retired American dentists by telling them why weād come to Costa Rica. But when we told them the price we were paying, they were amazed. They said the same work back home in Pennsylvania, would cost $40,000.
Next morning the volcano was completely covered by clouds. We breakfasted and watched in amazement as hotel workers placed fresh fruit on high stands for brightly colored birds. A large fur-covered raccoon-like animal came out of the jungle and begged for fruit, then ran off to hide and eat under the hotel. Later, emboldened, he climbed up the pole, scared off the birds, and ate in comfort.
We walked off on a nature tour and wound our way down the mountain path which we had been warned to stay on because of poisonous snakes. We made our way to a screened building housing lush plants and hundreds of exotic butterflies.
We went horseback riding in the rainforest with other guests, ducking under trees and wearing ponchos to keep dry.
Too soon, our driver was there to take us on the return trip to San Jose.
In his office Dr. Garita removed my temporary teeth and proudly brought in the newly-prepared crowns and bridges like a doctor holding a new-born baby. He set them one at a time inside my mouth. They fit perfectly and were much brighter than my old teeth.
The big moment came when Dr. Garita presented us with the agreed-upon bill for his services.
Iād had nine crowns, two root canals, one extraction, two bridges and two implants. And the total cost was less than $6,000. Iād saved $18,000.
Weād had a wonderful vacation and Iād returned with a mouthful of great teeth.
The big test came when I visited my own local dentist. He told me up front that in the United States the molded teeth alone would cost more than the entire dental work and vacation in Costa Rica.
Then I opened wide and got his verdict. āThis is the most magnificent dental work I have ever seen,ā he declared.
I left smiling brightly and feeling very clever. I had to get home right away and brush my teeth.
- ENDS ā
By Ron Laytner
Postcript: After this story first ran in North Carolinaās Charlotte Observer, so many patients visited Dr. Mario Garita that he was forced to move into a new large dental center. I am still receiving emails and letters of thanks from patients who went to Costa Rica. He has now built his own state of the art dental building, perhaps the most beautiful in Central America. See first (header) photo.