To those people with that picture-perfect Pepsodent smile, I envied you.
Dentists would say I was born with diastemata resulting from an oversized labial frenum — a genetic condition where my teeth were too small for my jawbone, causing them to be imperfectly spaced. In layman’s terms, gap-toothed.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.
I tried everything under the palate to fix my appearance and feel comfortable smiling: braces, a retainer, Invisalign. Thousands of dollars and a decade later, nothing had worked.
Until I realized I was being foolishly narrow-minded. I always thought of veneers — thin shells of porcelain that permanently bond teeth— as something reserved for the rich and famous. After all, the costs were prohibitive: from anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500 per tooth at a typical dentist in New York City.
I typed “how to afford veneers” into Google. Within minutes, the search giant’s algorithm advised the only way I could correct my smile and not go into steep debt was dental tourism.
My friends and family were skeptical at best. “You’ll end up toothless,” my best friend cried. My college roommate chimed in, “You’re going to get kidnapped by the dentist.” And my brother warned, “Your teeth will be too perfect.”
I ignored naysayers and dove into research. Though many countries such as Thailand, Poland and Turkey claim superior dental tourism, I ultimately settled on Colombia — a country that I have already fell in love with during my travels and one that, as I have come to learn, recognizes the importance of reputable medical tourism.
Colombia’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism began funding promotion of medical tourism in 2014, as the trend of tourists seeking health and wellbeing services started growing. According to the Oxford Business Group, total spending by foreign visitors for general and cosmetic procedures hit $216 million in 2014, up 41 percent from the year prior. And the trend keeps growing.
Colombian dentists, who are required to have the same credentials as American dentists, are able to offer their services at much lower costs simply because their salaries are a fraction of their US counterparts. These price discrepancies make sense when comparing costs of living: according to Salary Expert, the annual median income for a general dentist in Cartagena is $25,268 and $233,933 for a Manhattan-based general dentist.
Then I had to decide which Colombian city I would hunker down in during my 6-day surgery. The bustling capital Bogota? The temperate mountain town of Medellin? I ultimately settled on Cartagena, a beachy port city nestled on the Caribbean coast. After all, a tan would better show off my pearly whites.
Another Google search and accompanying reviews made one Cartagena dentist in particular seem like the man for the mission: Dr. Julio Oliver. Oliver, a specialist in endodontics, implantology and oral rehabilitation, had been practicing dentistry for 20 years. An email correspondence began the process, during which Oliver requested multiple photos of my bite at varying angles to determine if I was a candidate for the procedure before I’d even purchased plane tickets. Turns out I was.
The price was right. For the eight veneers I received, I may have paid upwards of $20,000 in Manhattan! Meanwhile, my Colombian dentist charged $400 per tooth — $3,200 total — saving me about $18,000, all while traveling to paradise for the procedure.
South America’s beauty-focused cultural norms have largely contributed to the industry growth. Brazil still claims the title of most cosmetic enhancement procedures in South America, but Colombia is inching ever closer in this skin-tight (literally) race, which encompasses body-shaping procedures such as liposuction and breast and buttocks augmentation. According to Mother Jones, about 500,000 cosmetic surgeries are performed in Colombia annually. But Brazil carrying out close to 1.2 million cosmetic surgeries a year (12.9 percent of 11.6 million annual procedures worldwide).
The accessibility of voluntary surgical procedures performed in South America is further amplified when you consider the estimated 108 million Americans that cannot even afford dental insurance (according to Physicians for a National Health Program), much less afford cosmetic procedures.
Although Colombia has had a tumultuous past — and worldly travelers’ first thoughts may drift to the “Narcos” TV show or guerrilla warfare groups — the murder rate has almost halved since the 1990s. Ever since the FARC rebels signed a peace accord with the Colombian government in 2016, the country has experienced a tourism renaissance, with an increase from approximately 2.6 million foreign visitors to 3.23 million in 2017, according to Colombia Reports. There was never a time throughout my adventure I felt unsafe or even ripped off.
Even the language barriers fell. My Spanish hovers at a third-grade level (“Hola, “guacamole”), yet I was still able to discuss the procedure with Oliver, who spoke broken English. Somehow, with a bit of miming involved, we understood each other perfectly.
And of course the “tourism” bit of “medical tourism” shouldn’t be neglected. Who wouldn’t trade a claustrophobic hospital room for the comforts of a plush (and, thanks to the strong dollar, affordable) hotel room. I recovered in style during my week in Cartagena, dispelling anxiety with baths and buffets.
After leaving the dentist at noon every day, I would make my way back to the luxurious waterfront InterContinental Cartagena de Indias (from $118). Meditating by the hotel’s infinity pool or sipping a glass of wine overlooking Cartagena Bay from my balcony was medicinal — all of a sudden I forgot half my teeth were drilled to stumps hours prior.
I splashed in the waves of Bocagrande beach, chowed down on innovative Colombian cuisine at hole-in-the-wall restaurants and intentionally got lost in the romance of Cartagena’s cherished old city, absorbing the luminous facades and spellbinding history.
When the procedure was finished, I even spent a whimsical night dancing to authentic Afro-Cuban jazz at the notorious Colombian nightclub, Café Havana, flirting and smiling bright, of course.
The souvenirs I took home from the trip won’t be lost to the trinket drawer in my closet; they will be plastered to my face for years to come.
The author was a guest of InterContinental Cartagena de Indias.