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To See or Not to See: Medical Tourism in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

After spending last September in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to learn Spanish, we were getting the travel bug again. My wife had been to see her optometrist for her annual exam. She’s presbyopic, and wanted to see if there was an option like the LASIK we had back in 2001 to get rid of reading glasses.

Her optometrist suggested that she could be a candidate for a lens replacement surgery – similar to cataract surgery but replacing the lens with a trifocal lens that would remove the need to have reading glasses. Given our forthcoming travel schedule, she was very interested in this option.

In checking locally, the pricing came out to $5,000 per eye to get the procedure done.

I decided to check and see what prices would be if we were to do the same thing in Mexico.

I reached out to Dr. May Cadena, an eye surgeon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to see if she did the surgery and how much it would cost us.

I was pleased (but not surprised) to find out that she would charge $2,500 per eye for the surgery. Furthermore, one of the Facebook groups I’m a part of had nothing but good things to say about their cataract surgeries with her, so we were confident that, if we were candidates for the surgery, she would do the job well.

Dr. Cadena’s assistant informed me that the timeframe from initial evaluation to final checkup would be about a month, so we decided to book six weeks in Puerto Vallarta. We also wanted to attend classes for a couple of weeks at the Spanish Experience Center in Puerto Vallarta, where we’d enjoyed our classes previously.

Furthermore, given our memories of slogging up and down the hill to class while staying in the 5. de deciembre neighborhood, we decided that we wanted to be as close to the school as possible, and we were willing to pay a premium for that location.

Given that we have a cruise to Europe planned for April, we wanted to get down and get the surgeries completed before the trip. That meant that we were booking last minute and during what is a high season in Puerto Vallarta. Yes, the weather is spectacular down there during February, but that spectacular weather is also what draws more tourists and raises prices.

We had our first appointment with Dr. Cadena shortly after arriving. She did a THOROUGH exam on both my wife and I. I don’t recall an exam that was as comprehensive as the hour I spent with her getting prodded and tested.

After doing the exams, she gave my wife a new prescription, which my wife had Dr. Cadena provide her with new progressive lenses (at a cost of about $250). However, she informed us that we were not good candidates for the surgery.

There were a couple of factors involved in her analysis. First, neither one of us has vision that is too bad, so the utility of losing the glasses needed to be weighed against the risk of detached retinas for people our age. Secondly, at least for my wife, the surgery might not be a permanent solution, as she would probably need readers again in 10-15 years. Finally, there is new technology for trifocal lenses for the replacement surgery that is supposed to be coming out in the next couple of years which would eliminate the issue of subsequently needing readers. So, while we might be candidates in the future, say, in 3-5 years, we weren’t appropriate candidates at this time.

While we were a little disappointed at first to still need to lug around prescription glasses, we quickly realized that we trusted the credibility of Dr. Cadena. We were trying to give her a lot of money, and she wouldn’t take it. To me, that’s a big indicator of someone’s credibility. I’m sure that some of the cataract factories in the U.S. would have been more than happy to do the procedures on us and take our money. So, someone who says “not now, and possibly not ever” gets a strong thumbs up from me.

As it was, we did both have some eye issues, so she gave us prescriptions and sent us on our way. She did have me take a glaucoma test and see a glaucoma specialist who was in town from Mexico City, but, aside from getting my wife’s new glasses, we were done with our eye exams.

With our schedules now freer than we anticipated, we booked a last-minute trip to Guadalajara.

We first got interested in Guadalajara after listening to the Amateur Traveler episode on Guadalajara. I went to the guest’s website, Plazas y Playas to check out their excellent guide on Guadalajara.

We were there for five days. The first day was the travel day, so we didn’t do much. The second day, we checked out the Colonia America, which was right next to where we were staying. It was very reminiscent of Laureles, from our trip to Medellin, Colombia. On the third day, we checked out the center and all of the historical sights and churches. On the fourth day, we went to Tlaquepaque, which has a fantastic park in the center. If you want a fancy dinner, we highly recommend Casa Luna. We were fortunate enough to meet David Luna, the owner, and he was a fabulous host for us. On the final day, we checked out Zapopan, which is enormous. It took 5 miles of walking and 3 Uber trips to cover everything. We were extremely impressed with the Parque Metropolitano de Guadalajara.

One of the beautiful cathedrals in Guadalajara, Mexico
This is the interior of the governor’s office in Guadalajara, Mexico. I doubt I could rock up to the governor’s office in Texas and ask if I could wander around and take pictures. Fortunately, I was able to charm the socks off of the receptionist using my intermediate Spanish! 🙂
The interior of another cathedral in Centro in Guadalajara. You can’t swing a dead cat in Centro without hitting a historic and beautiful cathedral, though locals warned us not to be in Centro at night.
More random, beautiful architecture in downtown Guadalajara.
And another beautiful cathedral. We were in this one being ignorant tourists right as Mass started. We darted out, hopefully not making too much of a scene.
The Parque Metropolitano de Guadalajara in Zapopan, Guadalajara is huge. It has a lake and a zipline. The two are not connected. I could see spending a lot of time in this nearly 600 acre park if we come back to Zapopan.
This is the interior of Casa Azul restaurant in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara. If you’re in Guadalajara and want to do a nice dinner, go here and thank me later.

We were curious about whether or not Guadalajara would be a place that we would want to spend more time in. I think we’re still on the fence. The weather was very nice; in fact, we were quite cold coming home in the evenings. The air quality was a little iffy. The cost seemed to be less than Puerto Vallarta, maybe halfway between the cost of Puerto Vallarta and the cost of Medellin. If we were to stay for a month, we would definitely stay in the Zapopan area. It was very safe and had a lot of restaurants and things to do. We really liked Tlaquepaque as well, but it seemed like the livable area was very small. Zapopan, on the other hand, is huge and is a colonia of 1.5 million people all to itself.

There are way better blogs that cover Guadalajara, so there’s no need to try to do a trip report of it.

Upon returning to Puerto Vallarta, we took two more weeks of Spanish classes. We are within touching distance (the subjunctive) of achieving level B1 on the DELE scale. My wife also took 6 hours of private conversation lessons with our teacher from the time we were there previously.

One week, we learned imperatives. The final test was to lead your blindfolded classmates around an obstacle course using only imperative commands (in Spanish).

We also took a trip with that same teacher to El Cerro de la Bufa in San Sebastian del Oeste. The school organizes weekend trips to local pueblos mágicos which are, in our opinion, well worth the incremental cost, as the teacher who leads them is very knowledgeable about the area and also is able to take you to some off-the-beaten-path places that you would never find on your own.

We had to go nearly two hours on windy mountain roads and then do a little 250′ elevation gain hike at nearly 8,000 feet, but the view was worth it once we got to the top of Sierra de la Bufa in San Sebastian del Oeste, Mexico.

All in, we spent $8,327.75 for 41 days in Puerto Vallarta this time.

We had dinner at an excellent seafood restaurant, Mariscos Cuetos Seafood, in Puerto Vallarta. We went there three more times after discovering it.
We stayed in the AirBnB that adjoins the school. There are bars up between the school and the apartments, so somebody decided to warn off the students: MENTAL HOSPITAL Please do not feed or molest the patients.
One night, we went into a small restaurant only to learn that the local television station had taken it over to film and interview with a supposedly famous Mexican band. 5 points to whomever can tell me who this band (the three men on the left) is, as we have no idea. They had great music, though!

 

Travel costs $3,791.64
Other daily living costs $2,703.73
Medical costs (including my wife and I getting our teeth cleaned at the same dentist that I visited in June) $865.65
School costs $966.73

If you want to know how much our monthly cost would be to stay in Puerto Vallarta minus the extraordinary medical costs, the school, and the incremental travel costs of going to Guadalajara, our daily costs were $150.83, meaning an average monthly cost of $4,587.75, pretty much in line with our last trip.

This will probably be our last trip to Puerto Vallarta for quite a while. There are other places in the world that we want to explore.

Here’s what we’ve learned about future longer-term travel:

    • The strongest friends we’ve made traveling have been interested in immersing in the local culture rather than staying at resorts. Yes, our 20th anniversary trip to a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico was a great trip and a wonderful way to celebrate our anniversary. However, that’s not who we are, and that’s not the type of person that we’ve developed stronger relationships with. Even if they don’t speak much Spanish, the friends we’ve made who we’ll make efforts to see again wanted to go deeper than the “Spring Break” experience in Mexico.
    • Size matters. We’re not the types who like to hang around on the beach all day, every day. That gets old quickly. We like to have lots of different things to do, and, in most cases, that’s why the size of the city we’re visiting matters. It would be much easier to do something different every single day for a month in Guadalajara than it would be in Puerto Vallarta. That said…
    • So does air quality. There was a noticeable difference in the air quality between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. My wife is not as sensitive to it as I am, and even she commented on how fresh the air was in Puerto Vallarta once we arrived back from our trip to Guadalajara.
    • For now, 4-6 weeks is a sufficient time in any one place for us. One night, we went out to dinner with our friend, Mike Johnson, and the length of time for our stay was a topic of conversation. Mike had been in Puerto Vallarta for three months and was probably staying another three to learn Spanish, and we were talking about the routines that we’d fallen into. I asked him how long he’d stay if he came back. His answer was rapid: “4 to 6 weeks.” We all felt like we needed time to unpack and adapt to a new place, but if the place wasn’t big (Mike lives in Austin), it was easy to get into a routine that was really no different from back home. In four to six weeks, it was possible, at least in Puerto Vallarta, to do different things most days, still repeat the places you liked, and not get into a rut. This also seems to be the modus operandi of our blogger buddies at Geekstreamers and Earth Vagabonds (at least until they got stuck in the Philippines during the pandemic).
    • Keeping a base and exploring from there was logistically easier. We visited Guadalajara for five days and only brought backpacks because we flew Viva Aerobus and we did not want to pay for the checked bag or the carry-on bag. Because we were willing to go with just very stuffed backpacks, we were able to leave everything else in our apartment in Puerto Vallarta while we were in Guadalajara. Of course, the downside was that we were paying for two vacation lodging bills – our AirBnB in Puerto Vallarta and our hotel in Guadalajara – concurrently. That was definitely not a budget hack, but it was a flexibility and simplicity hack. When we are in Europe, we may try the hub-and-spoke model of exploring again.
    • The weather in Puerto Vallarta is markedly better in January, February, and March than in September and October. The last time we were in Puerto Vallarta, the weather was hot and humid, with storms nearly every day. This time, the highs were in the upper 70s and lower 80s, with lower humidity, and no rain. In the mornings, the temperatures were in the mid-60s, and I noticed a lot of locals wearing sweatshirts and long-sleeved t-shirts. It’s the high season in Puerto Vallarta for a reason.
    • Uber picks you up faster; Didi is much cheaper if you’re willing to wait. Let’s be clear; ride sharing in Mexico is far cheaper than it is in the U.S., so the differences in cost are usually on the order of $3-5. That said, a 250 peso trip just visually is more shocking than a 150 peso trip to the same destination. Also, Didi is a Chinese company, and that may affect your choices, depending on your geopolitical view of large Chinese companies.

     

    In summary, Puerto Vallarta has been an excellent place to learn Spanish. Additionally, in later years, when we become eligible for lens replacement surgery, we would definitely go back there to get the procedure done, and we would not hesitate to use Dra. Cadena. For people who love the beach and the ocean and could happily spend the rest of their days there, you could do worse than Puerto Vallarta, although I suspect that, unless you want a place that very heavily caters to tourists, there are better beach cities to explore.

    We wanted our time in the beach cities of Mexico to be our long-term expat 101 classes. We wanted to become functional in Spanish to expand our horizons. In those aspects, we were quite successful, and we’re ready to branch out and see other places. We’d be very comfortable traveling anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world without needing someone to speak English with us, which will open up more opportunities in the future (assuming we don’t forget our Spanish like I’ve nearly forgotten my German).

    There are still plenty of things that we’re thinking about with regards to expanding our travel, such as:

    • How to incorporate friends and family into a long-term travel lifestyle. We’ve noticed that our peripatetic lifestyle has divided our friends into two camps. There are friends who would love to be where we’re at because they’re still working, but they’re very happy that we’ve achieved our goals and are doing what we worked long and hard to accomplish, and there are friends for whom our lives have created a rift and we’ve drifted away from them. Research from the University of Virginia’s Tim Wilson, along with Harvard University’s Gus Cooney and Daniel Gilbert (yes, even though Dr. Wilson is last on the tagline, I have to back a fellow Hoo and list him first) shows that when a person has an extraordinary experience and your friends do not, in some cases, the friends who do not have the extraordinary experiences will socially exclude those who do not. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to predict which friends will fall into which camps. Furthermore, the experience does not have to be that extraordinary to see these results. So, we’ve slowly learned with whom we can share our experiences (they’re fun for our friends, inspirational, make our friends happy for us) and with whom we cannot (they perceive it as showing off and are more exclusionary subsequently). That said, we like seeing friends and family, so one question that we wrestle with is how much is enough, and how can we incorporate them. We’ve made friends in traveling that we’d love to meet up with on our travels. Some friends will be in Europe this summer while we’re there, so we’ll see them. Another new couple that we’ve befriended travels extensively in Mexico outside of commercial fishing season, so we can plan to see them (or convince them to go someplace new to them, such as Buenos Aires). However, our family are in fixed locations, so we want and need to allocate time to seeing them as well.
    • Do we keep our house? We moved into a house during the pandemic. Owning a house was not originally part of our retirement plan, but a bad experience with new owners of the apartment complex where we lived convinced us otherwise. However, while we’re gone, we have our housekeeper come by weekly to check our mail (even though we have it forwarded to our Traveling Mailbox (#aff), the USPS doesn’t seem to recognize all of the forwarding requests we’ve made), water the plants, and make sure that nothing bad has happened to the house. We have the lawn guy come to cut the grass and do other yard maintenance. We still pay property taxes and insurance. We have to pay for electricity, water, and Internet at the house. All of that would be significantly easier if we had an apartment, and potentially (depending on how much time we spent in the DFW area versus elsewhere in the world) cheaper to just put it all in storage. Our household things would be safer in an apartment or in storage; we have automations that turn lights on randomly in the house during the day and the evening, but we don’t know how truly well that would work to deter someone who cases the neighborhood. Furthermore, there is a pleasure in returning to your home after traveling. We sleep better in our own bed. We are more comfortable in our own living room. We set our house up to be hunkered down long-term during the pandemic, which means we really like our house, even if we don’t want to become homebodies. Then again, if the housing market keeps going up, we’ll eventually get an offer we can’t refuse on our house, and that’ll solve the dilemma!
    • What’s the right balance of travel? I get itchy feet faster than my wife does. We’re just different people, and that’s OK. Still, I’m going to push more travel than she will, so that’s something we’ll wrestle with. We don’t even yet know how we’ll like extended travel; our longest period of time away from home was this trip – 6 weeks, as we had a week at home between our Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta trips in 2021. Being away in Europe for several months later this year will help inform our feelings and decisions on this one.
    • Where do we truly want to spend more time? We’ve yet to find a place where we’d want to spend more than a few weeks. There are places that are candidates, and places, like Puerto Vallarta, where we can safely eliminate that possibility. Fortunately, the world is a big place, so there’s still a ton to explore.
    • How will geopolitical events affect our travel decisions? We’d originally planned on basing ourselves in Istanbul and going to Georgia and Armenia during the first part of our European travels. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’ve had to pump the brakes a little. We have a friend who’s a global human security expert who had some strong opinions on the matter. We may start somewhere else and wait a month to see what develops. #standwithUkraine

    I realize those are definitely first world, and even higher end of first world problems. I’m not complaining. All I know is that what I think I’ll think a year from now, when I turn 50, will be different than what I think right now, and, as one of my old Army company commanders used to say, plans are only good until the first sound of guns. So, whatever we plan will almost certainly not be what actually happens. We’ve learned that the most likely way to have something unexpected happen is to say “I will never [DO WHATEVER] again!”

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

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