Rory Carroll

They were two old friends, each semi-retired, taking a stroll and catching up on each other's news. But to anyone watching, the sight itself would have been news.

Fidel Castro, the ailing Cuban leader, was out of his sick bed for a long walk and reportedly back to his old self, passionately discussing Latin American politics and global warming.

The other surprise was his companion: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel prize-winning novelist who vanished last week when the literary world wanted to celebrate his 80th birthday.

On Thursday, Mr. Marquez confirmed reports he had been in Cuba visiting Mr Castro and said his host was in ebullient form. ``It's the same old Fidel," the Colombian writer told the Spanish daily El Pais. "I tell you, it seemed like kilometres. Fidel is a force of nature."

Mr. Castro, also 80, has not been seen in public since July when emergency surgery forced him to cede power to his brother Raul Castro, triggering a storm of speculation that he was near death. Havana later released photographs of him convalescing and reading a newspaper but he was so gaunt the image alarmed supporters and cheered enemies.

The details of Mr. Castro's ailment have not fully been made public by the Cuban Government, but he is believed to be suffering from diverticulitis, an inflammation in the large intestine.

Mr. Marquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as The Autumn of the Patriarch, a veiled portrait of the celebrated commandante, is one of the few figures outside the Cuban leadership to have been granted access to Mr. Castro (Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one of the visitors).

On Wednesday Cuban state media reported that Mr. Castro phoned Hugo Chavez and Rene Preval, the Presidents of Venezuela and Haiti, to tell them about his guest. Mr. Castro referred to him by nickname: "This morning I had a visit with Gabo, who showed up here. He's here."

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006