Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different

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Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different

Last week we made our first visit to the dentist in Panama.  I had been looking forward to it for a while now because I’m always intrigued just to see the differences from what I’m used to in the United States.

I was told that going to the dentist here is a lot like being waterboarded.  Thankfully, I’d never experienced anything like that before but somehow that actually intrigued me more.  Curiosity killed the cat though, right?

Even though we had talked to several folks beforehand on what to expect, it was still… different.  Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

Now, although my daughter Faith and I both seem to hold this opinion, my wife, Lisa, definitely disagrees.  She wasn’t thrilled in the least with how the visit to the dentist went here.

Let’s talk about what transpired and the differences.  And of course, I’ll fill you in on the cost.

Booking our first visit to the dentist in Panama

One of the nice things about our small town in Boquete, Panama has to be Facebook groups.  I hate Facebook (yeah, I said it), but those groups have become a fantastic outlet for expats to communicate here.

So when you’re looking to find out where to buy a dehumidifier, Facebook groups to the rescue!  In fact, that’s how we ended up buying ours.  We were initially planning to buy one from the store until a fellow expat chimed in and was selling hers… nice!

These groups are also a fine way to find recommendations on everything from restaurants to housekeepers.  In case you haven’t figured it out, it’s also a great resource to find a dentist.

Without a doubt, it seems like all the expats in Boquete seemed to recommend the same dentist… Dra. Mónica Sanjur.  If you’re wondering, Spanish nouns have a gender.  Because she’s a female doctor, the Spanish word is actually “doctora” or “Dra.” when abbreviated.

If most everyone seems to be recommending the same dentist here, that’s good enough for me!  A nice bonus is that both Dra. Mónica and her assistant are bilingual with English as a second language.

Dra. Mónica’s office is right around the corner from Faith’s Spanish tutor’s house.  So one day after Faith got done with the tutor, we stopped at the dentist’s office to make an appointment.

Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different - Clinica Dental (Dentist Office)
Some of you were expecting a hut somewhere in the middle of the jungle, weren’t you?! Nope, a very nice building here in Boquete.

The receptionist was more than friendly and we made an appointment for all three of us to get our teeth cleaned and regular checkups.  She apologized that the soonest she could get us in altogether was in about 3 weeks.  Um, ok – that seems overly reasonable to me!

She said to just show up at 1 pm on the day scheduled and that was it.  Pretty anticlimactic, right?  Sometimes boring is good!

The morning of our appointment…

On the day of our appointment, we already had gotten through a pretty busy morning.  First, we attended a Tuesday Talk from a couple of U.S. Embassy liaisons discussing some good details on what we should know as expats living in Panama.

Then, since it was also the Tuesday Market here in Boquete, we picked up a couple of frozen prepared foods from Eric and Chandler of 2 Guys & a Cooler.  Their Deluxe and Creamy Mac & Cheese is the bomb and feeds us all for a meal or two for $8.  It’s perfect for days when no one wants to cook (I never want to cook!).

We knew we’d be out and about though and wouldn’t have much time to get back to our condo to drop off our food before our exciting first visit to the dentist.  Don’t forget that we don’t have a car here.

So… we had brought along our famous cart that I rigged up to be a portable cooler for today.  I’m like a regular MacGyver!  Yeah, I know – not very impressive.  But it still worked well for us.  I had frozen a bunch of water bottles the night before that I threw in there to keep everything cold.

A man with his cart and cooler...
Look at that handsome guy! The handiwork of my cooler on the cart with bungees is truly impressive, right? And did you notice the drawstring bag I’m wearing? Equally awesome!”

That came in handy because we also went to visit Miguel the fishmonger for the first time.  People rave about him and he sells fresh seafood to most of the high-end restaurants in town.

Miguel the fishmonger and Lisa
Look at the intensity in Lisa’s eyes as she makes sure she’s not getting ripped off!

We scored a pound of langostinos (prawns) and 1½ pounds of tuna for $20!  Not too shabby!

Jim, Faith, and Lisa... and their cooler cart
It’s not every day you get to pose in front of your cooler-cart of frozen dinners and fresh fish!

After that, we continued to pull our cart through town to the dollar store here (Todo a Dollar) for a couple of items.  Then we stopped at a wonderful place called Sugar & Spice for breakfast.

Finally, we made our way to the Boquete Library.  It’s extremely nice – very new with some books in English and some in Spanish, along with a lot of other modern resources.  I was told that the library was funded by expats as a kind of thank-you to the Panamanians.

We stopped in there so Faith could get a couple of children’s books in Spanish to help her learn the language.  This was a good homework assignment from her Spanish tutor.

Brown Bear and Horton Hears a Who Books
Recognize these book covers? The idea is for Faith to get books she knows from when she was younger and learn to read them in Spanish.

All of this was done before our 1 pm appointment… who said this retirement stuff is easy?!

Our first visit to the dentist in Panama!

Wow, did I get off track!  Let’s get back to our first visit to the dentist here!

We dragged our little cart-cooler over to the dentist’s office and got there around 12:50 pm.  We checked in and sat in the waiting room… so far so normal!

Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different - Lisa and Faith in the Waiting Room
Surprise, I’m taking your picture in the waiting room! Notice the perfect parking space for our cooler-cart in the corner!

Faith decided she wanted to go first (she’s tough like that!) and got in there just after 1:00.  I love when things start on time!

I went with her because she was a little nervous, so I could take some photos, AND so I could know what I was in for.  Somehow, it’s always about me!

Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different - Faith in the Dentist Chair
Hmm, maybe she tricked me – she doesn’t look so worried here!
Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different - Faith with the dentist
It seems like a pretty normal exam and cleaning to me!

The first thing that was a little different was that the dentist handled the actual cleaning.  She had an assistant, but the assistant was there not as the hygienist, but to assist the dentist.

I like that.  I’m used to seeing the dentist for about 3 minutes after the hygienist does all the work.  He comes in, looks at my teeth for 14 seconds, and then tells me everything looks fine.

Um, I’ll take the way it’s done here any day.

The next unusual thing was that she used a dental drill of some kind for the cleaning.  This was something I’m not familiar with from the dentists’ offices in the U.S.  We’re used to the hygienist using a metal scraper.  Is the dental drill something you recognize for teeth cleanings?

Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different - Dental Drill
I believe the magic corded device here is what she was using. Is that a dental drill?

After that, she moved on to polishing her teeth.  I believe in the dental world they call the tool used a prophy cup.   That’s the same thing that I’ve always been used to and it went just fine.  Everything was done with Faith in probably 15-20 minutes.

Overall, this seemed fairly straightforward and not too much different than I was accustomed to in the States.

What the heck were people talking about with this “waterboarding” stuff?

Dra. Mónica told me that everything looked good… but she wanted to do a panoramic dental x-ray of Faith’s teeth.  She wanted to see how things looked and she was a little concerned about one of Faith’s teeth that hadn’t come in yet.

Cool, no problem.  We did the x-ray (very modern equipment!) and then I walked Faith to the waiting room.

Once we sat down, I figured I’d check my email to see if anything good was going on.  After all, my latest post had just come out for the day!

So how’s this for different – I had already received a copy of Faith’s x-ray in my inbox.  What?!  We hadn’t even left yet and I was already 100% in the loop!  Nice!

Time for MY visit to the dentist

By the time Faith and I got back in the waiting room, Dra. Mónica was already working with Lisa in an exam room.

Within about 5 minutes, they asked me to come back to a different room to be ready for my cleaning.  Sorry, I don’t have any pictures but you don’t want to see me in the hot seat anyway.

Looking back at everything, here’s something valuable that I can pass along… kids don’t get the full treatment from the dentist.

Let’s talk about what happened for me (and for Lisa):

1) First, I got the dental drill for cleaning and plaque removal.  That is a really weird feeling on your teeth.  It’s got a loud, high-pitched sound and doesn’t feel good on your teeth much less when it touches your gums.  Not very enjoyable, but hey, if Faith can do it, so can I!

2) Onto the waterboarding.  Yeah, remember that craziness I talked about earlier?  Well apparently, they must skip that for the kids.  Dra. Mónica used a high-pressure water spray on my teeth that reminded me of the insane power you get from a pressure washer that you might use to clean your house or deck.

You know how that water from a pressure washer could hurt you because of how fast it’s coming out?  Hmm.  Yeah, this was pretty similar.  In fact, it hit my lip once and that stung quite a bit.

As this procedure goes on, it’s hard to keep your eyes open because water is spraying out.  In Boquete, we’re in the dry season where you experience a fine mist outside throughout several days called the bajareque.  Uh, I think that’s exactly what this was like.  I was expecting to see a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end but I had no such luck.

3) Time for the polishing.  Easy peasy.  Been there, done that many times.  The difference was that this had a nice, cheap bubblegum smell to it – like Bazooka gum we seemed to always have our hands on as kids.

Great, well, that was different but altogether not too bad.

Wait, what the @#$%?!  What are you doing?!  Starting over?

Yup.  Another round of each process once or twice more.

It probably took about 30 minutes from the time she started until the time she finished.  She took her time to make sure everything was done well so no complaints about that on my end.

I can’t really say it hurt, but there was just a little more discomfort than we’re used to from the cleanings in the U.S.  But my teeth felt cleaner than ever!

The cost

Now for the part a lot of you are curious about – how much did our visit to the dentist here cost?

We don’t have insurance and so you just pay on your way out – credit cards accepted.

I’ll preface this by saying that I was told that Dra. Mónica is a little pricier than some other dentists in the area.  She’s supposedly the dentist you want here though.  That said, the price seemed pretty darn good to me.

The total cost for our cleanings, checkups, and Faith’s panoramic dental x-ray was $170.

To give you a comparison, we had our last visit to the dentist in June in the U.S. just a little while before our move to Panama.  We had decided not to get dental insurance after I left my job at the end of 2018.  That left us with a six-month gamble and we knew we’d be paying for our last check-ups/cleanings out of pocket.

Our total cost in the U.S. was $365 for the three of us for cleanings and checkups.  That’s right – the price of our dentist appointments here was less than half of the cost in the U.S.  AND, our $170 cost here in Panama included Faith’s x-rays.

Yeah, let’s hear it for the lower cost of medical in other countries!  This is exactly why some smart folks leave the U.S. to get operations done and why medical tourism continues to grow.

The follow-ups

I don’t want to leave you hanging so I’ll tell you this.  The x-ray showed that Faith has a crooked bottom tooth that might be blocking another tooth from coming in.

Dra. Mónica recommended that we have a specialist review the x-ray and give his recommendations.  She’s thinking that Faith might need spacers to help with this.  As a side note, that’s something our dentist in the U.S. was saying as well.

So we booked an appointment with the specialist in about a month.  Although we’re generally used to free consultations in the U.S., it will cost us a whopping $25 for the appointment (again, this is without insurance).

And Lisa had a cavity (because she’s so sweet!) so she’ll be going back to get that filled in about a month as well.  We didn’t ask the cost so that’s a real nail-biter!  Ok, not really.

The walk home

To wrap things up, we got done with our first visit to the dentist a little before 3 pm.  We took our cooler-cart and headed home!

That gave us some time to discuss the appointment.  Here’s what we learned:

  • I thought it went just fine and although it was a little different, I appreciated how much time she actually spent getting my teeth cleaned.  I also like that it was the dentist handling my teeth, too, for whatever reason.  And of course, the cost didn’t hurt my feelings either!
  • Faith’s feelings were closer to mine and thought it went well, too.  Don’t forget though that she didn’t get the interesting waterboard treatment that Lisa and I went through.
  • And then my dear Lisa… she hated it.  The sound of the dental drill was like nails on the chalkboard for her.  And she said it hurt during that part of the cleaning, as well.  I asked her what her thoughts were on the mist during the high-pressure spray and she said she didn’t notice because she had her eyes closed the whole time.

In a nutshell, Faith and I are just fine going back there every six months.  Lisa, on the other hand, said she’ll be doing her future appointments in the U.S. when we’re there visiting.  To each his/her own, right?!

The biggest downside to our visit to the dentist here in Panama… no free toothbrush.  I guess we’ll have to go spend the 50 cents each for a few of them.  That’s going to break the budget!

So yeah, that’s the story. Not good or bad, just… different.  Wait till I tell you about my doctor’s appointment!

If Panama’s on your radar as a possible place to retire to, check out Retire in Panama Tours. It’s a first-rate way to see different parts of the country, learn about the pros and the cons of living here, meet other ex-pats living here, and gain a lot of the right resources to make the transition easier (immigration attorneys, for example).

Oscar, Rod, and Megan are great people, too. They have the knowledge to guide you through Panama, answer your questions, and ensure that Panama’s the right place for you. Check out Retire in Panama Tours for more info!

Are you ready to pay a visit to the dentist here in Panama with me and Faith or are you with Lisa on skipping this ordeal?

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

You know you wanna share this!!

33 thoughts on “Our First Visit to the Dentist in Panama Was… Different”

      1. We’re only going to be in Boquete for 2, weeks think we’re can make an appointment before we get there?

        1. If the dentist you’re hoping to schedule with uses WhatsApp then you should be able to do that in advance. Once you install and get WhatsApp set up on your phone, you’ll be able to communicate with the dentist without incurring any international calling rates – in fact, it’s 100% free! If you reply back to this email notification, I can send you the WhatsApp number of the dentist we used if you want it. Nonetheless, enjoy your time in Boquete!! 🙂

  1. Hey Jim,

    Nice post! My wife’s a dentist here in India and I can confirm that the “pressure washer” is what is used here as well. It does make a slightly high-pitched sound but I found is uncomfortable only where the teeth have sensitivity. I am a little surprised though that you had water everywhere and couldn’t keep your eyes open. When they use the pressure-jet, the assistant normally keeps another suction instrument in your mouth which keeps sucking out the water. I am not sure if you had the same thing.

    All the best in your adventures!

    1. Ah, so it’s not that uncommon for the use of that pressure washer around the world! 🙂 She did have an assistant with the suction instrument getting most of the water, but I still got the mist. I really didn’t mind it – it was just interesting.

      Thanks, Anand!

      1. Yes, very common. My wife confirms that those who have severe sensitivity, for them they switch to the old-school scraper style. It’s called a Waterpik apparently. It’s so interesting to get these different perspectives of how things differ..

  2. The ‘waterboarding’ is likely a professional-grade Waterpik, something that my US hygienist uses during my cleanings, after placing protective eye wear/glasses on me and herself (or just keep your eyeglasses on if you wear them). Since dental, vision and hearing are rarely included in health insurance plans, I’m anxious to know more about their costs, especially for big ticket procedures beyond routine checkups – dental crowns/caps as an example of a complex, costly procedure.

  3. I bet the “pressure washer” tool was a Cavitron. They used it once on my at my dentist here in the US, and it was horrible. I requested all future cleanings be done the old school way with the scrapping pick and the polisher.

    1. Thanks, Stacie – I looked up a Cavitron and that looked similar to what they used here. That gave me the idea to zoom into one of the photos I had taken to see what it was. It was actually a W&H Proxeo Ultra.

      I don’t blame you for asking to switch back to the “old-school” way. Of course, you’re now missing out on all the waterboarding fun! 😉

  4. How funny, except for repeating everything twice & the low cost without insurance, that sounds pretty much the same as my dental visits in the US.

      1. It’s not really a drill as others have mentioned. It’s just noisy and sounds like one. I never asked since I just assumed it was the new way dentists do things. (And it’s been like that for a few years at least.)

  5. In the UK, the water jets are standard. Big problem in Scotland given the climate is the temperature of the water, if you’re at 8am!! It is cold! They are quicker for the dentist to use, than a traditional clean. I do top it up with a separate hygienist visit, every 6 months £80 last visit. She prefers the manual approach.
    Really enjoying your blog posts about Panama

    1. Thanks, Erith! Wow, I thought it was weird with just normal water – I could only imagine if it was really cold! That makes sense on the speed for the dentist to get it done faster.

      You must have some pearly whites if you’re doing that plus a couple of separate visits every year! 🙂

  6. Not bad. But you know, I like my hygienist way better than my dentist. My dentist has a heavy hand. Good when you need some serious work done, but not fun for delicate stuff. He cleaned my teeth once when the hygienist was out.

    1. That would make sense in your scenario. The dentist here was very good at doing this (in my opinion) – she wasn’t rough at all.

      I bet you breathe a sigh of relief every time you walk into the dentist’s office and see that the hygienist is in! 🙂

  7. Hi Jim. Cool post. You had me on pins and needles the whole time wondering if you’d survive! 😉

    That ‘dental drill’ you describe with the high pitched sound is definitely a Cavitron of some sort — an ultrasonic descaler. They actually do a better job of removing plaque than the traditional scraper. But yeah, that high pitched sound is a pain in the ass. My dentist here in Washington uses them.

    What we don’t have is the “pressure washing” you describe. While they do have a water gun I would not describe it as “high pressure”. So that’s a little different. And the fact they do the cleaning process twice is very interesting. What a bargain!

    I bet your teeth were super clean! Incredible bargain!

  8. Hi Jim, thanx for the warning! So when I go to a dentist in Panama I’ll be sure to bring my ear plugs & a water proof mask, LOL. I really enjoyed this post. It was like reading an adventure from going to the library to buying fresh fish to the dental endurance test & getting home afterwards! Thanx for sharing! PS my last teeth cleaning (no insurance)
    was $200 PLUS $95 polishing so your cost was cheap for 3 people!!!!

      1. Dental & medical expenses here are out of control. We paid for Jackie’s June tour & plan to make the move in July. We sold our house in 2 days with multiple offers & close this week–exactly 30 days from the date we listed it (the power of a cash deal !!) This was so unexpected. Finished selling everything we owned today! It’s actually quite liberating for us. Panama here we come! PS have you visited a doctor yet? Do you have medical insurance in Panama? Always enjoy hearing about all your Panama experiences. Thanx for sharing!

        1. Hey, that’s awesome! Congratulations, Debbie!

          We don’t have medical insurance specific to Panama, but we do have expat insurance (which requires you to be out of your home country for at least 6 months of the year). This covers us in two ways: 1) we have coverage when we’re visiting the U.S. in case we get a bad car accident or something that puts us in the hospital unexpectedly 2) although we won’t use it much for medical here because the costs aren’t usually worth the deductible, we have it for catastrophic coverage here.

          I’ll be wrapping up a doctor’s visit later this month and already have a post started on it… just leaving you with the teaser for now! 😉

  9. Jim,
    Love your site! So I just completed a “periodontal cleaning” last month at the dentist. What you described is exactly what I had done. My bill on the other hand was $430! for what sounds like you got for $170! When we lived in AZ we would go to Mexico for dental work. We found the same thing there where the dentist does the actual cleaning, the equipment was as nice if not nicer than the dentist in the U.S., and the cost was about 1/3 of what it would have been in the U.S. We are moving to Panama this fall and are so excited about it! We will be following you for some more tips. Thanks for having such a wonder resource for expats!

  10. I’m surprised you prefer the scraper. Couple of years ago I changed dentist here in Italy and the new one has being using ultrasound instead of the scraper. I love ultrasound, it’s true they make more noise, but they are much more gentle to my teeth and gums than the scraper. I would never ever go back to a damn scraper.
    Actually it came out here in Italy almost all dentists/hygenists are now using ultrasound, my old dentist used the scraper because he has never done refresher courses.
    I’m surprised in US there are hygenists that are still using scrapers.

    1. Interesting – I found the scraper to be more gentle on my gums, but I’m fine with either. Based on some of the other comments, it sounds like my dentist in the U.S. was not necessarily the norm for the country. It sounds like eventually everyone will get the newer tool over the scraper though. 🙂

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