Pope Benedict used a cane to help him walk for the first time in public on Friday in a sign of his increasing infirmity as he departed for a trip to Latin America.

Benedict walked to his plane at Rome's Fiumicino airport using a cane for support, Vatican reporters accompanying him on the journey to Mexico and Cuba said.

The pope, who is 85 next month, has not been seen previously in public with the cane, according to Vatican experts. Last year he began using a mobile platform instead of walking up the aisle of St Peter's basilica.

The Vatican says using the platform is to spare him fatigue and there is no concern about his overall health.

He is due to rest for about 24 hours after his arrival in Mexico to get over the jetlag, in contrast to the gruelling schedules of his predecessor John Paul before his health worsened in the final years of his life.

Benedict was 78 when he was elected while his predecessor was 58 and has chosen a less hectic schedule to conserve his strength.

Pope John Paul, who died in 2005, made 19 trips to overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America, the last when he was 82. This is the second for Benedict, who enters the eighth year of his papacy next month.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella, writing by Barry Moody; Editing by John Stonestreet)