San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Free Dental Program Takes Off in Talamanca

A free, nongovernmental dental program is blossoming in the absence of proper health-care centers for Costa Rica’s indigenous, said former New York dentist and founder of Project Talamanca, Dr. Peter Aborn.

“There’s nothing there,” Aborn said of dental options around Shiroles, Talamanca, in the Caribbean region, where he recently participated in a four-day campaign of fillings and restorative dental work for about 250 area residents. A year from now, Aborn hopes to see a well-equipped health center in Shiroles.

“Look at this little girl… It’s like a photo from the old Life magazines,” he said, referring to a picture they snapped of a girl who walked six days with her family to get to the dental clinic. The group did two dental procedures on each of three family members and gave them some clothes, food and money before sending them on their way.

Just over a year ago, Aborn, who has a private practice and teaches at the Universidad Latina, gathered some students and colleagues to launch a series of dental visits to the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve in Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean region (TT, July 8, 2005).

Since then, Aborn, 61, and Dr. Luis Boza, 25, have returned three times with dental teams made up of Costa Ricans and North Americans. Boza is a Costa Rican dentist who also has a private practice.

With four doctors and a five-member staff, they’ve formed a traveling dental mission that’s come to be known as Project Talamanca.

“Once you feel Talamanca…it’s like a spirit,” Aborn said, looking for words to describe the area’s impact on him.

“These people have nothing. Most people, what they try to do is change these people, which is a mistake. We want to give them a basic service that all people deserve.”

He first worked with the region’s Bribrí and Cabécar people in 1997 for a year of social service to get his Costa Rican dentistry license. Aborn is originally from Massachusetts and has three children.

Project Talamanca is an all-volunteer organization financed partly by the dentists themselves and partly through groups such as the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) and the Central American Dental Charity Foundation, recently organized in Missouri by Project Talamanca’s Dr. John Bahr.

Foreign companies donate medical supplies, including instruments that can locate the root of a tooth without X-ray equipment, which they said is nonexistent in the region.

There is a government-run community health clinic about five kilometers from Shiroles in Suretka, but services are very basic and the clinic can attend to only 30 people a day, said Carlos Cascante of Finca Educativa, a community improvement and ecotourism center in Shiroles. The nearest hospital is about 75 kilometers away.

Finca Educativa plans to give Project Talamanca a corner of its land to build a health center, Cascante said. The dentists hope such a center will be able to equip mobile health units that could reach farther into the Talamanca jungles, Aborn said. When?

“I’d like it open yesterday,”Aborn said, and speculated that, building in stages, the center should be partly operational within a year.

“It’s going to be expensive,” Boza said.

The dentists don’t yet have an idea of how expensive, and aren’t sure where all the money will come from. Nevertheless, Boza and Aborn are optimistic that by working with the local people, international foundations, volunteer experts, university students and Costa Rica’s health-care system, the Talamanca people will get a functioning health-care center. Ideally, the center could be used by the government’s medical system as well as by qualified private groups such as Project Talamanca, Aborn said. A local committee would administer the center, according to Cascante.

Besides obvious challenges in a population that has better access to sugar than toothbrushes, not to mention trips to the dentist, Project Talamanca members said occasional charitable dentistry work by other groups is often second-rate. Sometimes well-meaning volunteers come to the area and start yanking out teeth.

“You don’t take a tooth out on an 8-year-old and leave us with a malocclusion,”Aborn said, referring to a bad procedure that ends with misaligned teeth.

Project Talamanca does all that’s possible to avoid pulling teeth. Next year, Aborn will lead a prosthodontics program at Universidad Latina that will include a week in Talamanca, where students will make prosthetic teeth – “for the first time ever” in Talamanca, he said.

The government’s system, which includes free access to health care through the Social Security System (Caja) for people on the Talamanca reserve, is doing what it can with the resources it has, Aborn speculated. But there are only two or three dentists for the 160,000-acre reserve. The Caja estimates 15,000 Bribrí and Cabecár live in the region, much of which is accessible only by trails.

Everyone agrees that access to health care is bad in Talamanca. Aborn told of a patient he saw on his recent trip – they recognized each other from Aborn’s 1997 residency.

“Good to see you,” he said. “When was the last time you saw a dentist?” She replied in one word: “You!”

For info about Project Talamanca, contact Aborn at or 280-1150.


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