For the 50+ Traveler

Another doctor’s visit. I already know what the diagnosis is; I have been seen for these symptoms before. The prescription is always the same. I rarely meet my deductible because I don’t really see my doctor too often. After a while, it gets a bit frustrating. I know to get the prescription, I will have to pay $150 or more for the office visit, and then comes waiting for the prescription, both of which take time out of my busy schedule.

I was having dinner with a friend and mentioned my frustration. She suggested I look into getting my meds filled at a Mexican pharmacy. She was quick to point out that I could not fill a narcotic or opiate-based prescription, and she also pointed out that this option is not for everyone. But given my circumstances, my interest was piqued.

Jessica's Center in Progreso, Mexico.
Donna Long

Doing My Homework

At first, I was skeptical. I’d heard stories of pharmacy scams with fake prescriptions. I also heard that the Mexican cartel targets Americans who venture across the border. My friend said the United States is the leader in outbound medical tourism, and stats show that American medical tourism travel makes up nearly 20 percent of the market. She said you also have to know where to go and not go. She goes to a town near the Rio Grande Valley in the very southern tip of Texas called Nuevo Progreso -- commonly referred to as Progreso.

Progreso is known as a destination for dentistry (crowns, implants, fillings, et cetera), botox, and other minor cosmetic improvements, as well as pharmaceuticals.

I talked with other people about Progreso. I also did a bit of my own sleuthing about Mexican pharmacies and Progreso on the internet. I found that I could potentially save up to 50 percent on my prescriptions. There are also companies such as the Medical Tourism Corporation and Patients Beyond Borders that help organize trips to Mexico and other countries for medical procedures. I heard many times to make sure to go to a well-established, licensed pharmacy that is regulated by COFEPRIS (Federal Committee for Protection against Sanitary Risks), the Mexican equivalent of the FDA.

My friend offered to go with me on my first trip.

The Mexico-U.S. border.
Donna Long

Going Across The Border

We drove to the border-crossing bridge and parked in a monitored parking lot, which cost just $2 a day for cars. The Progreso International Bridge is one of the safest and most accessible places to cross into Mexico. All the shops and restaurants are within a few blocks of the border crossing, so we decided to walk across. On the American side of the border is an ’80s-era turnstile that costs $1 (quarters only) to walk through. We walked past a duty-free store and onto a covered walkway that follows the road.

As I walked across the concrete bridge, I came up to a sign marking the border. I looked through the barrier onto the Rio Grande River and thought of all the history associated with the river that flows under the bridge.

Walking into Mexico was as simple as going in one door and out another. There was no monitoring or checking of passports. For returning to the U.S., you can use a passport book, passport card, or just your driver's license or another form of government-issued ID.

A pharmacy in Progreso, Mexico.
Donna Long

The Pharmacy

The moment I walked through the second door, I knew I was in Mexico. There were people lined on the edge of the sidewalk and in doorways handing out cards and flyers and asking if we needed a dentist or prescriptions. They were polite and not pushy. We made our way to Jessica’s Pharmacy. It is one of the more popular, well-established, and trusted pharmacies in Progreso.

The pharmacist warmly greeted us in English. I showed the pharmacist the empty prescription bottles I brought from home. He turned and pulled each bottle off the shelf behind him and proceeded to show me the names matched on both the English and Mexican bottles. I purchased Ibuprofen 800 mg, an anti-inflammatory, and Oseltamivir Phosphate, otherwise known as Tamiflu. I was used to paying $125 for Tamiflu at my U.S. pharmacy -- when they had it in stock. At Jessica’s, I paid $27 without a trip to the doctor’s office or risking the pharmacy being out of stock because of flu season. On that trip alone, I saved several hundred dollars by purchasing my prescriptions in Mexico and paying for them with U.S. dollars. At Jessica’s, credit cards are also accepted.

View of Progreso, Mexico.
Donna Long

Progreso’s True Mexican Flavor

After filling our prescriptions, we walked to the main street. I looked around, and it reminded me of Mexican towns before they became “modernized” with big box stores. The street had cars slowly driving both directions. People were crossing the road between the cars; there were even a few bicyclists on the road. Small multicolored triangle flags were strung across the street as mariachi music played somewhere in the distance. Vendors lined up side by side, packing the sidewalks. I saw shoe shine benches, jewelry tables, hats and clothes, and even a few merchants grilling corn on the cob and serving street tacos. Behind the rows of vendors were shops filled with colorful Mexican pottery, household goods, alcohol, and packaged food, plus restaurants and more pharmacies.

We made our way to a restaurant called the Red Snapper. We ascended a narrow set of stairs to the second floor of a building set along the middle of the street and chose a table on the balcony so we could watch the activity in the street below. It was great for people watching. The food was flavorful, plentiful, and fresh. When you order a margarita or pina colada, it comes with a free refill. I chose a shrimp ceviche and, of course, a margarita to wash it down.

View of Progreso, Mexico.
Donna Long

Tips To Know Before You Go

After lunch, we made our way back to the Border and Customs Station. To leave Mexico, you have to drop 50 cents into another turnstile before you get to the station. Once inside, there will be two lines, one for passport and U.S. driver’s license holders and another line for people using all other types of documents.

The tourist area of Progreso is safe to walk around. I only saw the policia (police) immediately around the customs building. The residents were all friendly and helpful. When young children came up to us with bracelets to sell, we just told them, “No, thank you,” and they moved on. English is widely spoken and understood, which made me feel much more at ease. Walking the main street, even the side streets, I never felt uncomfortable or that I was not safe.

Since my first trip to Progreso, I have been back several times. Each trip, I save several hundred dollars. I plan return trips to Jessica’s at least twice a year to replenish my prescriptions and get my truly-authentic-Mexican-meal fix. I have eaten at other restaurants, but I still prefer the balcony table at Red Snapper so I can people watch.

I also use my trips to Progreso as a good excuse to pick up a new piece or two of colorful Mexican pottery to add to my collection. Another must for me is the pure vanilla extract for baking. It adds so much more flavor than the extract I get from the grocery store at home, plus, it comes in a quart-sized container -- not a 1-ounce bottle.

I have been very satisfied with the prescriptions from Mexico. I have detected no difference from the medicines I get in the U.S. Again, I don’t get all my prescriptions in Mexico. Anything that is a suspension or requires an injection, I get from my U.S. pharmacy.

If you decide to venture south of the border to fill your prescriptions, be sure to look for licensing or a permit in the pharmacy from COFEPRIS and to check each Mexican prescription for an expiration date. Do your homework and make your own decision about whether filling prescriptions in Mexico is right for you.

Considering going to Mexico as a medical tourist -- or for any other reason? Read up on these seven mistakes tourists make when visiting Mexico before you go.