Walking in the back streets seems scary. I know, I do it all the time. You are comfortable wherever you are, outside of your comfort zone. In fact, it is a culture shock.
Normally, when people travel, they go to tourist places and work on the planned things carefully. For example, on the main island of Bocas Del Toro, you can walk across the line, go to a nice restaurant, and buy a boat ticket that will take you to a nice beach. It's okay, and you should do it, because it's part of the experience.
But to get a little deeper into the culture, all you have to do is go back some streets to the neighborhood and you will see another world. Yes, it's dirty, yes, it may not smell very good. But if you stop seeing the bad conditions and look at the people, your focus will start to change.
You will see grandmothers watching the world go by in the porches. If you smile and wave, they'll be back in a nice way. You will see empty plastic bottles and fishing lines for kids to play with. Stop by and watch for a minute. try to guess the rules of the game and how to win. It puts you in a very different mindset. Suddenly, you really "see" them. they notice you and all you have to do is smile. There is no need to speak the language either. People may be nervous about your presence at first, after all, you are in their "territory," but a smile seems to invalidate their negative feelings. You will soon forget your fears and find yourself out for a minute to connect with happy kids playing on the street. And when you realize it, poverty is not what you think it is.
People are quiet. They are living their whole lives. They have lots of family and friends around. They spend time on their backs and chatting. They are in no hurry. They are in no hurry.
It is very refreshing.
Along the back streets you will see places sold by locals. The food is small and looks small and has no choice in the main drag. However, they have the necessities of living and are cheaper than what tourists see. Stop by and buy a water bottle or candy bar. It gives you a moment to connect with the seller. You find it funny when you first enter. But then again, just a smile. If you know a few words in Spanish, use them, even if you think you are a fool (probably you do), that you are happy that you are trying to communicate and will immediately open the door for a better connection.
Check around the store while you're there. look at the shelves. It gives you directions about how people live. It is likely rice bags and tuna and sardine cans. You will find canned milk powder and rotten bananas (really ripe and very sweet). You will also find lots of cleaning supplies and laundry. Despite the dirty living conditions, all children go to school in the spark of clean school uniforms.
You will also find candles, with images of saints and incense marked with such things as "prosperity, wealth and success." This shows that people are changing their homes. They take the mixture of Catholicism and old religion very seriously. See how much you're learning?
Leave the supermarket and go down the street and you will see men's hairdressers and women's salons (very small and quirky). Stop by for a minute to see what's going on and you'll find guys nailing nails with every color and design you can imagine with very short hair. Again, these people are not as poor as you think. Personal grooming is very important to them. As you walk out of the store, you look down the street and see how people dress. You will find nice bags and shoes, high heels and jewelry. This is a part of learning how to connect. To understand a town, you need to slow down the details and pay attention.
Keep walking and you'll find a place to stay. It will probably be very small, like 2 tables and 8 chairs. It will probably be dark inside (which keeps it going) and should be written on any menu wall somewhere or inside your server.
If you are brave, stop and eat something. This is one of the best ways of living another culture. My secret to not getting sick is to stop in places that seem too busy. No one wants to be sick and locals know the best places to eat.
If you have not figured out what to order and are very adventurous, ask the server to bring you what you think is best. You can find a soup sitting in front of the bones of strangers and a large portion of root vegetables. Don't worry, most foods are beef or chicken. It may seem obvious, but it should taste good.
Walking the back streets can give me a bit of courage and I wouldn't suggest it at night or in big cities. But small towns are full of people like you and me. In all honesty, you will never see people unless you have a place where you live. What you see is people trying to get a lock on a tourist town, and that's not really a fair sampling of where they live.