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Border Crossing: Los Algodones

It all began with a friend of ours needing some fairly major—and expensive—dental work. With no dental insurance, and being self employed, she was looking for a solution that wouldn’t leave her destitute. The topic of Mexico came up, and after some inquiries and online research, my wife, who needed some minor work done, headed south with our friend to Los Algodones.

Los Algodones, which like everything and everyone in the desert, has two names, is officially known as Vicente Guerrero. It’s located right on the U.S.-Mexican border, south of California, just west of Yuma, Arizona. It’s the northernmost town in Mexico, and has a monument denoting that, high up on a mound next to the large fence that runs along the border.

This sleepy little border town of around 10,000 residents has made a name for itself by offering affordable dentistry, optometrists, and prescription medicines, though developments in the coming six months will add to the offerings significantly. A rough count puts about 350 dentists at work in Algodones, in everything from one-dentist offices to large dental clinics with many specialists and oral surgeons. It’s common, especially in season when snowbirds come to warm their wings in the desert, to find midwesterners, Canadians, and Southwest residents strolling the streets of Algodones.

Our friend and my wife had a fun time in Algodones (well, as fun as you can have when you’re going to the dentist), and when my wife needed a crown in June, we found we could literally go to Algodones, stay in the hotel there, eat out three meals a day, and still save more than half off of American rates. My wife urged me to come along, and with me still reluctant to send her off to a town across the border alone, and with her telling me it would be good for me to see the town, I joined her—in the hottest week of June. Ever.

I’m glad I went. Yes, you need a passport or passport card to go, and yes it was hellishly hot, and yes, we still had a great time. It was officially out of season, and much quieter than when the snowbirds flock to the Southwest, but the hotel, Hacienda los Algodones, was still reasonably busy. We had braved the 120 degree heat with our bags to walk to the hotel, though there is an air conditioned hotel van to take you back and forth to and from the border crossing, as well as to dental appointments. We like to walk whenever possible, but on occasion, especially after an extensive dental procedure, a cool van ride back to the hotel is appealing.

Settling in at the Hacienda was easy. The hotel is associated with one of the larger dental clinics and the staff not only is very professional and helpful, but they have a patient coordinator on site to help with arrangements. The professionalism continued at Sani Dental Group, where my wife went for her crown. The staff was some of the best I’ve seen at a medical facility anywhere, and the facility was modern, more advanced than most dentists I’ve been to in this country, clean, and amply staffed. Their lab (they own their own lab, they don’t send out), is down the street, so that speeds up getting results and things like crowns or night guards.

The hotel has its own restaurant, but it is soon to be joined by a new hotel run by the same company. The Hacienda was built in stages, and I recommend asking for one of the new rooms whenever possible. The hotel has a nice courtyard and a pool that helped keep the record heat of our stay, bearable.

Algodones’ success lies mostly in its dental/medical trade, but it offers some fun shopping and dining options, and is has its slightly seedier side as well, with a couple clubs that offer strippers and... well, sometimes it’s best not to ask. The Hawaii Club in Los Algodones also ofers some good live music once in a while and is a locals hangout as well, and I’ve seen a couple of warnings about The Green Door (Bar Olympico, said to be infamous in some military circles) and prostitution, but it’s also very popular, so I’ll leave it to you to pick your entertainment.

A lot of shopping in Algodones involves street vendors, and while the quality may vary on goods, so does the pricing. We came across something for our grandson and asked the vendor how much it was. His response was that normally, it sold for $12, but it was summer, business was slow, and he hadn’t had breakfast yet, so he’d let it go for $5 so he could buy breakfast. But if we gave him $7, he could buy something to drink for himself and his helper, he suggested. He got the $7. For the rest of our stay, we were greeted pleasantly each time we passed his way.

There is one pedestrian-only shopping street that is fun to browse, Callejon Alamos, and we enjoyed Curios Martinez, with Talavera pottery (the real Talavera, not the knock-off), that is colorful and fun. The shopkeepers, Maria Martinez and Josue Daniel Gradillas, were friendly and fun. If you’re looking to brighten up your yard or home and bring fun gifts home from your visit to Algodones, this is a good place to shop.

Many shopkeepers speak English, though their language skills may be limited to transactional capabilities. But we easily managed to get around and enjoy ourselves, and the people of the town, from the street vendors to the dental staff, and the residents in general, were welcoming and kind. If you get to Algodones and find you’ve left behind your hat and sunglasses, the street vendors and shops have you covered at very reasonable prices. Feel free to negotiate, but be respectful. You can get good deals in the off-season, but these folks have families to feed too, so there’s no need to haggle too hard. You’re going to save money, one way or another.

Of course, there are liquor stores, and you can find some deals there, but the border restricts you severely when bringing alcoholic beverages back into the U.S. You can purchase inexpensive vanilla as well, but beware that some vanilla extract in Mexico is actually made with tonka beans instead of vanilla beans, and tonka beans contain coumarin, a blood thinner, which could cause complications and a higher risk of bleeding if you take any blood thinnning medications already. Look for the senor mayor (older gentleman) selling tequila bottles full of honey in the evenings. Very tasty!

Shopping for pharmaceuticals is popular in Algodones, and the pharmacies keep pretty busy. The FDA warns Americans seeking inexpensive prescription medications that they may not be getting the real thing, and in fact, in 2004 they tested a few prescriptions purchased in Algodones and found they either did not contain the active ingredient, or differed substantially in potency. But bogus or expired medications and other pharmaceutical problems can occur in the U.S. as well as other countries. We can’t guarantee (and won’t) that whatever you purchase will be the real thing, but we can note that thousands of Americans turn to these pharmacies for their prescription needs and save up to 75 percent on their medications.

You’re reportedly allowed to bring back up to a three month personal supply of prescription medication into the country from your visit. No medications on the controlled substance list are allowed into the U.S., but many of them are not sold in legitimate Mexican pharmacies. Medications must be in their original containers and you are supposed to declare them with U.S. border agents when crossing back into the country. While we don’t take any prescription drugs ourselves, so we did not shop for them, the pharmacists seemed to be knowledgeable and professional in Algodones, and the pricing seemed very reasonable.

Dining in Algodones ranged from food trucks at the park to small open air restaurants, and indoor higher end dining and drinks with entertainment. One of our favorites was Molcas Taco Shop, a small open air cafe with the promise, “Here, if you don’t like the food, you don’t pay, “ painted on the wall. We enjoyed everything from their street-style tacos to chilaquiles with ham and eggs for breakfast. Dinner for two, washed down with ice cold Tecate, and a heaping bowl of freshly made chunky guacamole, and freshly grilled chicken, pork, or beef, never seemed to run over $20, with tip.

For a higher-end dining experience, the place to go is Pueblo Viejo, just steps from the border. Try their seafood. The shrimp is caught in the Gulf of California, and is the best we’ve had in years. Margaritas, Veracruz-style fish, giant avocados stuffed with shrimp—you simply can’t go wrong. And it’s air conditioned!

Other favorites of ours included Birrieria El Paisa, a colorful and inexpensive restaurant I believe is associated with the Happy Mouth Dental office next door. A special offered a free meal with any dental procedure. Not far off the beaten path is Suggar Salt & Pepper, an outdoor cafe with very tasty housemade food that’s a nice change from the other restaurants in town.

In between dental appointments, shopping, dining, margaritas, and cooling off in the pool, we rose early one morning and set off on a hike south from the Hacienda. There’s something in Algodones that almost no one seems to know about or see when they visit: Algodones is where the Colorado River goes to die.

About a mile’s walk southwest from the Hacienda is the Morelos Dam. Partially in Mexico, partially in Arizona, the dam marks the point where the Colorado River essentially gives up the ghost. Its remaining water is funneled into the Canal Alimentador Central, where it goes off to supply local Mexican agriculture. Beyond the dam, there are some wetlands that appear to be good for seasonal birdwatching, and a meandering rivulet running through the desert that is all that’s left of the once mighty Colorado.

It was almost like going to a funeral, to see this river humbled and broken. But you can’t blame Mexico for that. By the time the Colorado reaches the Morelos Dam, 90 percent of its flow has already been siphoned off in the U.S. During our stay, and even more so during their main season, you’ll encounter barkers for dentists, optometrists, and street vendors asking for your business as you go around the streets of Algodones. Don’t mistake the fact that they’re asking for your business with thinking that they’re not good, but some are better than others, and it is important to do your research prior to going (reviews are often hard to find in the normal channels).

After our experiences with obtaining dental care in Mexico The Sun Runner is launching Sun Runner Smiles, a partnership with service providers in Algodones we feel offer high standards of quality and guarantee their work. We’ll be helping guide readers seeking quality dental care at prices up to 70 percent lower than in the United States make their arrangements, as well as know how to enjoy their time in Algodones. We’re planning an orientation week in Algodones in October or November where readers can join us for day trips, dining, and fun, and have the best time possible, while going to the dentist.

These days in the United States, we often have an image of Mexico as a land of drug lords and danger, but Algodones seems about as far away from that image as is possible. It’s a small, walkable, friendly, and a little sleepy (in the off season) town that’s main business is catering to Americans and our dental and medical needs. There were plenty of seniors and Canadians here, so it can’t be too dangerous (we did see one police vehicle while we were here, and yes, the guys at the border did ask us some questions on our way into Mexico, but I think that’s because there were three of them, virtually nobody but us coming through, and they were bored).

It’s always good practice to be friendly yourself, respectful, and aware of your surroundings when traveling anywhere new, and Algodones is no exception. Take the usual precautions of any traveler, and you’re likely to have the same great experiences we had while we were here that inspired us to launch Sun Runner Smiles to help others have their own enjoyable Algodones experience. After all, wouldn’t it be great to look forward to going to the dentist?

See you at the pool!

Meet our Sun Runner Smiles hosts, Linda & Larry Bachel!

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